Space plane intended for tourist flights in first powered test

April 29, 2013 at 7:29 PM

MOJAVE, Calif., April 29 (UPI) -- The Virgin Galactic space plane being developed to carry fare-paying passengers into space made its first powered flight over California, company officials say.

The vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, was dropped from a carrier aircraft high above California's Mojave Desert Monday morning and ignited its rocket engine for 16 seconds, reaching a speed of Mach 1.2, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt our single most important flight test to date," Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said in a statement. "Today's supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship's powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year's end."

In a full flight, a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft will carry the reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and ignite its engines.

They will power the spaceship to nearly 2,500 mph and lift a pilot and up to six passengers -- paying $200,000 for a ticket -- to more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface, considered the edge of space.

Once there they will experience weightlessness and be able to see the curvature of the Earth before SpaceShipTwo glides back through the atmosphere to land at a purpose-built spaceport in New Mexico.

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