MOJAVE, Calif., Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo soared above Earth for a test flight Friday in the California desert, the corporation said.
About 50 minutes after it was attached beneath the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, SpaceShipTwo ignited its hybrid rocket engine for a 20-second burn and hit a maximum speed of Mach 1.4 as it rose to 71,000 feet, NBC News reported.
On its return, the pilot temporarily angled SpaceShipTwo's wings to slow its descent. The craft ended its flight with a glide back to the Mojave Air and Space Port, NBC News said WhiteKnightTwo landed a short time later.
Virgin Galactic, owned by British-born billionaire Richard Branson, said it could debut as the world's first space passenger service this year.
SpaceShipTwo is designed carry two pilots and up to six paying passengers on suborbital space rides. The current cost of a ticket is $250,000, and more than 600 customers have already signed up.
SpaceShipTwo is the successor to SpaceShipOne, which was piloted into space three times in 2004.
While the test program is being conducted in California, Virgin Galactic's operations are expected to move to Spaceport America in New Mexico for passenger service, NBC News said. Branson has said the first commercial flight could take place sometime in 2014, and he has vowed to be on that flight.