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SpaceShipTwo fires rocket engine in supersonic flight

The space plane hits Mach 1.2 as Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson sees "full space flight" by the end of 2013.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo fired its rocket motor in flight for the first time, hitting an altitude of 55,000 feet.
Virgin Galactic/MarsScientific.com

If you've got $200,000 to spend on a ticket to suborbital space, your spaceship is nearly ready.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, billed as the world's first commercial space plane, notched an important milestone today by firing its rocket engine during flight for the first time.

The test at Mojave Air and Space Port in California saw the passenger space plane detach from its dual-hull mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, at an altitude of 47,000 feet while being piloted by Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury of builder Scaled Composites.

The pair then ignited the rocket motor, which propelled the craft up to 55,000 feet. During the 16-second engine burn, SpaceShipTwo went supersonic, hitting Mach 1.2.

The rocket-fueled flight test lasted about 10 minutes, with SpaceShipTwo returning to Mohave for a smooth landing, according to Virgin Galactic.

"The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt our single most important flight test to date," founder Sir Richard Branson, who witnessed the test flight, said in a release.

"For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today's supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship's powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year's end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn't be more proud of everyone involved."

Based on the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers. It will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico and let tourists experience a brief period of weightlessness.

More than 500 people have signed up for a ride so far. How about you?