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SpaceShipTwo probe said to focus on possible structural failure

Early reports suggested an engine explosion led to the crash of the experimental space plane, killing one pilot.

The experimental passenger rocket, designed for space tourism, crashed in California's Mojave Desert Friday, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another. Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

A possible structural failure rather than an engine explosion may have led to the crash of SpaceShipTwo, according to preliminary data, sources told the Wall Street Journal.

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation is still in the early stages, the Journal's unidentified sources said, noting that no definitive cause has been determined and the investigation could still change focus. Video footage and preliminary data analysis suggest aerodynamic stresses led to a midair breakup of the experimental suborbital passenger rocket Friday, killing one pilot and injuring a second when it went down in California's Mojave Desert during a test flight.

According to a tweet from the Associated Press on Friday, a witness said SpaceShipTwo exploded in the air after its rockets ignited. That ignition is a key stage of the craft's self-flight process, where it detaches from the larger WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that ferries it to cruise altitude. The aircraft's fuel tanks and engine were recovered largely intact, the Journal reported, suggesting that there was no explosion before the craft's midair breakup.

Representatives for the NTSB, which said Saturday it would take the lead role in the investigation of the crash, said it plans to hold a press conference at 8pm Pacific Time on Sunday. Virgin Galactic, the company behind SpaceShipTwo, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry two pilots and six passengers, had completed 54 test flights in the last five years, the latest being a controlled "glide flight" last August to test stability during descent. The last powered flight of SpaceShipTwo occurred in January of this year, as Virgin Galactic was changing the aircraft's rubber-based solid fuel that caused engine instabilities to a new, better-performing thermoplastic-based solid fuel developed by Scaled Composites. Yesterday's failed flight was the first in which SpaceShipTwo used the new fuel while in the air.

The crash is a blow to Virgin founder Richard Branson's ambitions of commercializing space tourism. Branson, who vowed not to abandon the idea of commercial spaceflight, said he doesn't believe the setback will halt the eventual emergence of commercial spaceflight. "Space flight is hard -- but worth it," he said in a blog post earlier Saturday.

Branson had said this year that he hopes to be on the first commercial flight either later this year or sometime in early 2015. More than 700 people have booked a flight with Virgin Galactic, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking.