Virgin Galactic reaches milestone with successful test flight

Richard Branson is'a little jealous of Musk's launch

Early Thursday morning, the company's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity suborbital vehicle was launched mid-flight by White Knight Two, a larger plane.

The VSS Unity is the first ship built from the ground up by Virgin Galactic's sister company, The Spaceship Company.

Virgin Galactic plans to perform a series of additional powered test flights with Unity.

According to Virgin Galactic, passengers float in zero gravity for several minutes during the flight, and "experience astounding views of Earth from the black sky of space", from approximately 62 miles (100 kilometres) above Earth.

Unity has previously flown on test flights in which it glided without lighting the rocket.

The firm praised pilots Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile for the "great milestone test flight".

Seconds later, the pilots turned on Unity's engine for the first time.

The company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo at $250,000 a seat. Burning a mixture of rubber-based solid fuel - called HTPB - and nitrous oxide, the rear-mounted rocket engine propelled SpaceShipTwo to almost twice the speed of sound as the pilots maneuvered the craft on an 80-degree climb. Images are courtesy of Virgin Galactic. The company can now proceed with new phases, including full-duration rocket burns and powered flight.

Virgin Galactic's first commercial flights are planned for the end of next year, and Branson's plans have been boosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's intentions to invest $1 billion in the company. While the company celebrates that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead.

The Spaceship corporation, which works in Mojave and is a unit of Virgin Galactic builds the spaceships. Company officials said a year ago they hoped to begin flying tourists up to an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers) some time in 2018.

The flight was the 12th overall for Unity, which Virgin Galactic officially unveiled in February 2016. A data review is next on the cards, before another flight will be carried out.

"Space feels tantalisingly close now", Branson tweeted after Unity's landing.

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