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Virgin Galactic, the private aerospace company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, successfully tested the passenger space-plane SpaceShipTwo today. SpaceShipTwo (SS2), is also called the Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, or VSS Enterprise, an obvious tribute to another space vehicle of some note. SS2 was carried to 45,000 feet (13.7km) by its mothership, named WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), or ‘Eve’, after Branson’s mother. In this initial ‘captive carry’ test of the space plane, it remained attached to the mothership for the duration of the flight.
The SS2/WK2 combo took off from a runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and flew for approximately three hours over the deserts of the Antelope Valley. SS2 is a prototype passenger vehicle that is designed to take astronauts to suborbital flight. If the remaining tests go as planned, it will eventually take a crew of two pilots and up to six passengers to the edge of space, at just over 100km (62 miles).This may happen as early as the end of 2011.
SpaceShipTwo is an all-carbon composite plane that uses a hybrid rocket motor, and will be carried to 50,000 feet (15.2 km) by WhiteKnightTwo before being released. It will then fire the rocket to propel it above the Karman line.
Here’s a video of the takeoff and landing of SS2 today:
SS2 was unveiled to the public in December of last year, and this is the first in a series of tests to determine how safe and operational the craft is before it can begin to bring passengers into space. It will undergo another captive carry flight to 50,000 feet, and then will be brought into the air by WK2 and released in subsequent tests.
SpaceShipTwo was designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, who also led the design team for SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million in 2004 for completing the first series of manned commercial spaceflights.
If you have $200,000 laying around and want to go into space, SS2 is your space plane. However, you’re going to have to get in line: over 300 people have already signed up for seats on the plane.