At about 8 a.m. local time, the VMS Eve carrier plane took off from Mojave, Calif., carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity before releasing it 14,000 metres above ground, Virgin Galactic said in a statement. It's the company's first powered flight since a crash in 2014 that destroyed an earlier model and killed one of its pilots.
"We applaud Virgin Galactic for its extensive work readying its spacecraft, and we look forward to its achievement within the commercial space and space tourism industry", the State of Florida's aerospace development branch stated. The space-ship climbed steeply and went supersonic - Mach 1.87 - throughout the 30-second rocket burn off.
The Spaceship Company, a Virgin Galactic sister firm also owned by Branson's London-based Virgin Group, built the new SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, the second in a planned fleet of five, and took over the test-flight programme from Scaled. The propulsion system was not a factor in the accident.
VSS Unity is a part of the SpaceShipTwo class of spaceplanes designed by Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Company to be dropped from a mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo. Unlike the last time in 2014, however, the test was a success and the VSS Unity managed to complete it first supersonic flight.
The tail booms are known as "feathers" because their function is likened to the feathers of a badminton shuttlecock. VSS Unity also jettisoned oxidizer left over in its rocket motor, then glided to a landing back at Mojave.
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The flight generated "valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance", which Virgin Galactic's engineers are now studying.
Officials did not say Thursday when SpaceShipTwo will make a full-duration test flight, or when commercial passengers could begin flying with Virgin Galactic.
Two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction in Mojave.
In the years since then, Virgin Galactic has changed the SpaceShipTwo design and training routine to address shortcomings that were pointed up during the investigation. The flights come with a hefty starting price tag of $250,000, spokeswoman Christine Choi told Albuquerque Business First in late 2017. "Space feels tantalisingly close now".