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Virgin Galactic space plane crashes during test flight, pilot dead

Virgin Galactic's space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, exploded mid-flight during a test run Friday.

By
Gabrielle Levy
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo exploded mid-flight over California's Mohave Desert on Oct. 31, 2014. Screengrab:KABC
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo exploded mid-flight over California's Mohave Desert on Oct. 31, 2014. Screengrab:KABC

BAKERSFIELD, Calif., Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo exploded during a test flight Friday, crashing into California's Mojave desert and killing at least one of its two pilots.

The company first announced the problem on Twitter, saying the aircraft experienced an "in-flight anomaly." Aerial television footage showed a small field of debris on the desert floor.

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SpaceShipTwo is a 60-foot long craft that is capable of carrying six passengers and two pilots. It is launched while mounted between the twin fuselage of the carrier, WhiteKnightTwo, which carries SpaceShipTwo up 50,000 feet than releases it for free flight.

The anomaly occurred after SpaceShipTwo was released by WhiteKnightTwo and fired up its hybrid rocket engine, the first time it has done so in nine months. Since January, Virgin Galactic has switched SpaceShipTwo's fuel mixture from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix with the goal of boosting performance.

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"Virgin Galactic's partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today," Virgin said in a statement. "During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle."

"The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely," the statement continued. "Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so."

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California Highway Patrol Officer Jesse Borne told CNN one of the pilots had died and the other was seriously injured. Both test pilots were equipped with parachutes.

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Virgin Galactic has sold trips aboard SpaceShipTwo to take people into sub-orbital trips to the edge of outer space. More than 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 for the trip to space, and Virgin's billionaire founder Richard Branson is hoping to be on the first commercial flight, planned for next year.

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