Virgin Galactic spacecraft performs the first powered flight since fatal 2014 crash

SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two ascending through the desert sky this morning

SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two ascending through the desert sky this morning

"Space feels tantalizingly close now", Branson tweeted after Thursday's test flight.

The VSS Unity is the first ship built from the ground up by Virgin Galactic's sister company, The Spaceship Company. The pilots then manoeuvred the Unity into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn.

Even after its rocket engine had cut off, Unity continued to coast upwards, reaching an estimated apogee of some 84,271 feet (25,685 meters).

The "feathers" concept was developed by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan and demonstrated during the 2004 suborbital flights of the experimental SpaceShipOne, which was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first privately developed, manned rocket to reach space.

The VSS Unity was built from scratch by The Spaceship Company specifically for Virgin Galactic. Unity also broke the sound barrier for the first time in today's test flight, reaching a speed of Mach 1.87, or about 1,434 miles per hour. At around 50,000ft, the tail-booms were lowered again before Unity glided to a runway landing.

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Neither pilot commanded the feathering mechanism to engage, but strong aerodynamic forces caused the feather's two booms to rotate into their re-entry positions once they were unlocked, leading to the vehicle's disintegration. Virgin Galactic's previously said it expects to fly paid missions in 2018, but it's unclear if that remains a feasible deadline.

The craft christened VSS Unity has taken flight a dozen times since its debut in February 2016, but the previous 11 tests didn't involve lighting up the plane's hybrid rocket motor.

This was the first time Unity has achieved supersonic flight. The next phase of testing is also now ready to commence, which will expand the duration of the rocket burns to their full potential under the design.

The flight generated "valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance", which Virgin Galactic's engineers are now studying.

Other than the technical specifics of the flight, Virgin Galactic didn't say much yesterday. The test flight in Nevada brings us one step closer to commercial space tourism.

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