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Virgin Galactic aircraft cruises to supersonic speeds

The commercial spaceline, co-owned by billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group, just pushed its flagship aircraft higher and faster than ever before in a second rocket-powered flight.

Virgin Galactic's commercial spacecraft SpaceShipTwo cruising to 69,000 feet and a top speed of more than 1,000 mph, or Mach 1.43.
MarsScientific.com/Clay Center Observatory.

We're one step closer to being able to cruise at 2,500 mph and experience five minutes of weightlessness 364,000 feet above the Earth -- if you happen to have a quarter of a million dollars lying around, that is.

It may not have as cutting-edge a name as Elon Musk and SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, but Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is the real deal, and it successfully sailed Thursday to supersonic speeds with the aid of a rocket engine for the second time.

"We couldn't be more delighted to have another major supersonic milestone under our belts as we move toward a 2014 start of commercial service," Virgin Galactic founder and billionaire Richard Branson said in a blog post.

While Musk's SpaceX is more a space transportation line aimed at assisting the launch of satellites and transporting other payloads to destinations like the International Space Station, Virgin Galactic's primary focus is taking the airline model to suborbital space. That puts it in the running for the title of world's first spaceline.

The SS2, seen on the left, shortly after it disengaged from the White Knight Two launcher and kicked on its hybrid rocket engine to begin a higher ascent. Kenneth Brown/Aerospace Photography

At roughly 8 a.m. local time in the heart of California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, Virgin Galactic's launcher -- one of two Scaled Composite-made White Knight Two's the company owns -- reached 46,000 feet before SS2 disengaged and began flying on its own. The eight-seater aircraft -- designed for two pilots and six passengers -- then kicked on its hybrid rocket engine for 20 seconds, twice as long as the initial rocket-powered test flight. The thrust pushed the vehicle to 69,000 feet and a max speed of Mach 1.43, or approximately 1,090 mph.

The SS2's first rocket-powered flight was in April of this year, when it reached 55,000 feet and Mach 1.2.

And for the first time in flight, the SS2's pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols -- of Scaled Composites, the aerospace manufacturer that also designed both the SS1 and SS2 -- tested the vehicle's "feathering re-entry system." The system turns the rudders up in a wing-like configuration to help the aircraft float to a safe altitude before reformatting to a gliding mode.

Scaled Composites' White Knight Two mothership and launcher that carries the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo to roughly 50,000 feet before releasing it mid-air. D. Miller/Scaled Composites

Cofounded in 2004 by Branson's Virgin Group and the United Arab Emirates' Abu Dhabi Aabar Investments PJS, Virgin Galactic has been making substantial headway in its mission to introduce commercial spaceflight since it unveiled the SS2 in 2009. Today's flight marks SS2's 29th flight and the White Knight Two launcher's 132nd flight.

The ultimate goal is to keep the rocket engine burning for 70 seconds until SS2 hits 2,500 mph and a max altitude of 364,000 feet. Virgin Galactic reports that it's already sold roughly 625 tickets at a cost of $250,000 each -- up from $200,000 until the price was hiked shortly after the initial test launch in April.

Signed up for one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic Flights are celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Beiber, reports Space.com. Let's hope the price drops dramatically in the next few years, so less successful teen pop sensations can get their chance to fly in space.

Check out Branson's narration of the test flight below: