Virgin Galactic rocket ship reaches space in test flight

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Richard Branson's commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic literally soared to new heights during a Thursday morning test flight of its rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo space plane.

The test flight is scheduled to depart from Mojave, California at 1000 Eastern Time (1600 CET) on Thursday. Virgin Galactic officials say recent research favors the lower number. Attached to that ship will be the VSS Unity spacecraft, which will be released 43,000 feet in the air and will soar as many as five miles above the Earth's surface - touching the edge of space.

The spacecraft with two test pilots, Mark (Forger) Stucky and Rick (CJ) Sturckow, at the controls quickly hurtled upward and out of sight from viewers on the ground. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.

Virgin's billionaire founder Sir Richard cried, high-fived and hugged spectators, as hundreds of the firm's employees and family members watched the launch.

The rocket motor on the spaceship will burn for a longer period on the next flight, which is set to take the pilot and aircraft into space for the first time.

Simultaneously, Unity will carry four research payloads from the Nasa Flight Opportunities programme, the space agency's partnership scheme with commercial space operators.

The multi-millionaire admitted earlier this year that the number of spurious claims he has made about Virgin Galactic flight dates was "embarrassing". It was the first spacecraft with humans aboard to be launched from USA soil and reach space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and it marked a milestone for the commercial space industry, which also includes companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Boeing.

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Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad.

New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. It returned safely to Earth after the flight.

At 51.4 miles high, VSS Unity reached the technical definition of space, earning its pilots commercial astronaut wings by the US Federal Aviation Administration, although the usual worldwide standard is the 62-mile "Karman line".

The flight will take off from a spaceport in Mojave, California. A typical NASA "sounding rocket", a small rocket generally launched with equipment on board to take measurements and scientific experiments during an approximately 30-minute sub-orbital flight only, reaches anywhere from 30-80 miles above the Earth.

More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 U.S. for rides in the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, almost three times the speed of sound.

Virgin Galactic's first experimental spacecraft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot. "Today we completed our first revenue generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings".

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