Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Reaches Record Height, Paving Way For First Commercial Flight In Fall 2014.

By Ajit Jha on January 11, 2014 1:46 PM EST

SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo recently reached new heights, pushing forward the company's goal of commercial space flight by the fall of 2014. (Photo: Jeff Foust, CC BY 2.0)

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company, created a record of sorts in its third-ever supersonic flight on January 10, when its reusable space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, reached new heights. The successful flight keeps the company on its planned course to begin commercial service later this year.

SpaceShipTwo climbed as high as 13.5 miles up in the air. It blasted off from Mojave Air and Space Port at about 7:22 a.m., and attained a speed of Mach 1.4. "I couldn't be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights," Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said in a statement, according to Space.com. "2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space."

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The supersonic flight undertaken by the company's chief pilot was flawless, proving that the various systems are safe and working fine for a commercial launch, Branson said.

The propulsion system used in SpaceShipTwo is the world's largest operational hybrid rocket motor, and was developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. Several ground firing tests had already demonstrated that the burn time and performance characteristics were optimal to lift the vehicle and private astronauts into space.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides characterized this flight as "another resounding success. With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014."

Virgin Galactic has already conducted over two-dozen unpowered "glide flights," as well as two SpaceShipTwo rocket-powered test flights, which lifted-off in April and September 2013. The ship has room for two pilots and six passengers in suborbital space flight. In other words, passengers will experience weightlessness for some time and see Earth in the background of dark space. They won't, however, be able to complete a full orbit of Earth.

About 680 space passengers have already booked a place on the space voyage at a cost of $250,000 per seat, and the company has collected more than $80 million in deposits. If all goes as scheduled, the first Virgin Galactic commercial space flight will take off in the fall from Virgin Galactic's terminal at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The first private passengers to travel into space will include Branson and his adult children, Holly and Sam.

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