Virgin Galactic's space tourism rocket SpaceShipTwo has achieved its first solo glide flight, marking another step in the company's eventual plans to fly paying passengers.
SpaceShipTwo was carried aloft by its mother ship to an altitude of 14,000 metres on Sunday and released over the Mojave Desert. After the separation, SpaceShipTwo, manned by two pilots, flew freely for 11 minutes before landing at an airport runway followed by the mother ship.
The entire test flight lasted about 25 minutes.
"It flew beautifully," said George Whitesides, the Virgin Galactic chief executive.
The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo is undergoing rigorous testing before it can carry tourists to space. In the latest test, SpaceShipTwo did not fire its rocket engine to climb to space.
Until now, SpaceShipTwo has flown attached to the wing of its special jet-powered mother ship, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Sunday was the first time the spaceship flew on its own.
'A very big step'
"It's a very big deal," Virgin president Sir Richard Branson told The Associated Press. "There are a number of big deals on the way to getting commercial space travel becoming a reality. This was a very big step.
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"We now know that the spaceship glides. We know it can be dropped safely from the mother ship and we know it can land safely. That's three big ticks."
SpaceShipTwo will make a series of additional glide flights before rocketing to space.
"The next big step will be the rocket tests actually on the spacecraft itself," Branson said. "We've obviously done thousands of rocket tests on the ground. The next big test is in the air. We'll be doing gentle rocket tests in the air, ultimately culminating into taking the spaceship into space."
SpaceShipTwo, built by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, is based on a prototype that won a $10 million prize in 2004 for being the first manned private rocket to reach space.
$200,000 US tickets
Tickets to ride aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000 US. About 370 customers have plunked down deposits totalling $50 million US, according to Virgin Galactic.
Commercial flights will depart from New Mexico, where a spaceport is under construction. Officials from Virgin Galactic and other dignitaries will gather at the spaceport Oct. 22 for an event commemorating the finished runway. The event will also feature a flyover by SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.