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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo reaches record height in latest test

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic sent its SpaceShipTwo reusable space vehicle to new heights on Friday, blasting the craft nearly 13.5 miles into the air and reaching a speed of Mach 1.4.

The craft left Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 7:22 a.m. PST strapped to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, which took the slick plane to around 46,000 feet. At the controls were Virgin Galactic Pilot Mike Masucci and Scaled Test Pilot Mike Alsbury.

'2014 will be the year we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.'

- Sir Richard Branson

WhiteKnightTwo then dropped the plane, which used its own rocket motor to roar to 71,000 ft. -- setting a new record for the craft.

“2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space,” said Sir Richard Branson in a statement about the successful test flight. “Today, we had our own Chief Pilot flying another flawless supersonic flight and proving the various systems required to take us safely to space, as well as providing the very best experience while we’re up there.”

SS2’s propulsion system has been developed by Sierra Nevada Corp and is the world’s largest operational hybrid rocket motor. Although today’s flight saw it burn for a planned 20 seconds, the system has been successfully tested in ground firings to demonstrate performance characteristics and burn time sufficient to take the spaceship and its private astronauts to space. 

This flight was the third supersonic, rocket-powered test of the Virgin Galactic system after dozens of subsonic flights.

“Today’s flight was another resounding success,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014.”

In Fall 2014, Branson and his adult children, Holly and Sam, will be the first private passengers to travel into space on SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic’s terminal at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

To date, the company has accepted more than $80 million in deposits from approximately 680 individuals for rides on the tourist vehicle to the edge of space.