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Virgin Galactic to resume powered test flights

Virgin's commercial passenger space flight venture is soon to begin a new round of test flights for spaceliner SpaceShipTwo.

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MarsScientific.com & Clay Center Observatory

Passengers who made a $250,000 reservation to fly into space aboard a Virgin Galactic flight may not have to wait much longer: the company has announced that it is to resume rocket-powered test flights after remaining fairly inactive for the majority of 2014.

The most recent powered test flight of the SpaceShipTwo craft took place on January 2 of this year (you can check it out in the video below). In May, the company announced that was changing the solid fuel used in the hybrid rocket motor from hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, a form of rubber that caused engine instabilities, to a plastic called thermoplastic polyamide, which performs much better and should allow SpaceShipTwo to achieve higher altitude. This required qualification tests, which were finally completed two weeks ago.

"We've done a lot of development tests over the years, but what we've been doing recently are qualification tests where you're firing the same motor design multiple times to make sure you're seeing the same thing every time," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told Space.com. "So now we feel ready to put that motor on the spaceship."

SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry two pilots and six passengers, successfully completed an unpowered test "glide flight" in August, rotating its tail and wings as it would to increase stability during descent from a suborbital flight. The spacecraft has to date completed 54 tests flights -- but none with the new fuel, which has only been tested on the ground.

Whitesides did not say when the new powered test flights were to commence, but it should be soon -- Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson has stated that he expects to be on the first commercial flight by February or March of 2015 -- although it wouldn't be the first time he had been mistaken. Just two months ago, he told Fox Business Network that he would be "bitterly disappointed" if he wasn't in space by the end of this year.

When Sir Branson originally opened his commercial passenger space flight venture in 2004, he projected that the Virgin Galactic spaceliners would commence operation as early as 2007.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to launch from a high-altitude carrier, the WhiteKnightTwo. The company is also working on the construction of a yet-unnamed second craft for its fleet, which should be completed by the end of this year.

So far, over 700 people have booked a flight with Virgin Galactic, including celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Russell Brand, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking.