Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Aiming for the Edge of Space

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Aiming for the Edge of Space

Virgin Galactic reached the edge of space for the first time in an historic test flight which could move the dream of space tourism closer to a reality.

Virgin Space Ship Unity was released from a carrier aircraft over California's Mojave Desert early Thursday and ignited its rocket engine.

The company considers the altitude to be the boundary of space, which contradicts a long-held view that it is reached at 62 miles (100km). Then, the VSS Unity activates its rockets to push itself even faster, turning upward at the same time.

Branson's space venture suffered a major setback in 2014 when its first space plane, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. The plane returned to a normal flying configuration before gliding to land on the Mojave Air and Space Port runway.

The test flight represents a new era of civilian space travel that could begin as soon as 2019, with billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed attempts, like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.

Reaching the threshold of space would demonstrate significant progress toward the start of commercial flights that were promised more than a decade ago.

"We made it to space", the company said on Twitter."We travelled at 2.9 Mach on the way up to today. I'm really looking forward to going up myself next year.' He said the ship was 'magnificent", declaring: 'Space is Virgin territory!'

Reaching an altitude of 51 miles (82.68 km), the duo on board was able to experience a few moments of weightlessness.

NASA's probe travels beyond solar wind bubble on longest running mission
The two are now outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the sun that extends beyond the orbit of Pluto . NASA launched Voyagers 2 and 1 (it launched Voyager 2 first) in 1977 to explore Jupiter, Saturn, and the space beyond.

Rather than following the NASA strategy of a vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane.

Virgin Galactic envisions SpaceShipTwo as a prolific research vehicle as well, and the spaceliner has already toted scientific experiments on its test flights.

More than 600 people have all bought tickets to be on the first round of commercial space flights in six-passenger rockets by Virgin for up to $250,000 (£200,000) a ticket. The rocket motor burned for 60 seconds. The FAA announced that pilots Mark Stucky and C.J Sturckow will be receiving FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings.

Hundreds watched the space tourism plane take off at 7.10am and successfully land back at the test centre, which Mr Branson described as "a relief". We started Virgin almost 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge, Branson said via a company-issued release.

"How on Earth do I describe the feeling?" he said on stage, referring to his emotions from watching the successful test flight.

"It's a day that we've been waiting for for a long time", CEO George Whitesides told reporters Wednesday at the Virgin Galactic facilities at Mojave Air and Space Port.

The National Transportation Safety Board's months-long investigation into the incident ultimately concluded that it was caused by human error - though, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported at the time, "investigators found that SpaceShipTwo's design was also to blame".

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