'Space tantalisingly close' for Sir Richard Branson after successful rocket test

Virgin Galactic conducts first rocket-powered test since 2014 crash

Virgin Galactic completes first test flight since fatal crash

The SpaceShipTwo vehicle, named VSS Unity, dropping from the belly of a carrier jet at 9:01 a.m. PDT (12:01 p.m. EDT; 1601 GMT) Thursday over the Mojave Desert in California. After a brief free fall, Unity's rocket motor then roared to life for a 30-second burn, vaulting the spaceship to Mach 1.87, or almost 1,500 miles per hour, and up to a max altitude of 84,000 feet.

A significant moment for the company and its sister manufacturing organisation, The Spaceship Company, this marks the first test since a fatal accident in 2014, in which a pilot was killed and the SS2 being tested was destroyed.

In 2016, the space company was granted an operating licence to fly its passenger ship with the world's first paying space tourists once final safety tests are completed.

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.

Virgin Galactic posted a video of the new SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity and said the flight saw an "envelope expansion" for the program as a whole in terms of rocket burn duration, speed and altitude achieved. Because of this, Unity can only reach a maximum altitude of 80 km.

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The pilots raised the craft's unique twin tail booms to a 60-degree angle to the fuselage to slow and stabilize Unity during the initial stages of descent, and then lowered them back to the conventional configuration lower in the atmosphere.

VSS Unity went through more than a year of testing prior to today's test flight, which included seven glide tests, Sputnik reported.

Unity is a follow-on production model called SpaceShipTwo, built by The Spaceship Company. Shortly thereafter, Unity was directed towards the glide home, which concluded with a smooth landing back at Mojave. "While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead", the company stated in a release issued after the flight.

Unity is the first vehicle to be built from scratch for Virgin Galactic by The Spaceship Company's talented team of aerospace engineers and technicians.

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

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