Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has successfully completed its first ever rocket-powered flight earlier this week, as the private spaceship broke the sound barrier as it soared over the Mojave Desert.
SpaceShipTwo was first carried aloft to an altitude of about 47,000 feet (14,000 metres) by the mothership WhiteKnightTwo. Once it reached its cruising altitude of sorts, WhiteKnightTwo released the craft so it could test-fire its rocket engine. It ultimately reached a maximum supersonic speed of Mach 1.2, or roughly 913 miles per hour (1500 kilometres per hour), which is well past the speed of sound (768 miles per hour or 1236 kilometres per hour).
Although the SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine only completed a 16-second controlled burn, that was more than enough to propel the spacecraft to a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet (16,700 metres).
"The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout," said Virgin Galactic President & CEO, George Whitesides, in a release. "The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space."
The successful rocket test marks the final phase of vehicle testing prior to commercial spaceflight service from Spaceport America in New Mexico. In the coming months, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites will work to expand the flight range of their spaceship. This should culminate with a full-fledged spaceflight, which the two companies expect will take place before the end of the year.