The passenger-carrying reusable space vehicle departed from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 7.22 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, which took it to the planned altitude of 14,020 metres (14 km). At the controls were Virgin Galactic pilots Mike Masucci and Mike Alsbury, Xinhua reported.
The WhiteKnightTwo then released the spaceship, whose rocket engine burned for 20 seconds and powered SpaceShipTwo to 21,640 metres (21.6 km), its highest altitude to date, at a maximum speed of Mach 1.4, or 1.4 times the speed of sound.
British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, described the flight as being “flawless” and said it proved “the various systems required to take us safely to space”.
“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights,” Branson said. “2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.”
The SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers on sub-orbital spaceflights. Tickets to ride the spaceship cost $250,000 each.
To date, the company, owned by Branson’s Virgin group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, has accepted more than $70 million in deposits from about 580 individuals.