Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic tests spaceship over California's Mojave Desert

Virgin Galactic conducts first rocket-powered test since 2014 crash

Virgin Galactic completes first test flight since fatal crash

The one-minute video shows the suborbital space plane, known as VSS Unity, drop from the mothership airplane that carried it into the skies over California's Mojave Desert, zoom even higher under its own rocket power and roll down the runway shortly after landing.

Virgin Galactic said Thursday's milestone marked the start of the final portion of Unity's flight test program, which began after a 2014 test-flight crash of its predecessor, VSS Enterprise, which killed one of its two pilots and set back the project. Unity, which "incorporates the additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident", according to a press release, is much heavier and is not created to reach quite those heights.

This time the jet landed safely, prompting Richard Branson to tweet that "space feels tantalisingly close now".

In the years since then, Virgin Galactic has changed the SpaceShipTwo design and training routine to address shortcomings that were pointed up during the investigation. The pilots then manoeuvred the Unity into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn.

Seconds later, the pilots turned on Unity's engine for the first time.

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Even after its rocket engine had cut off, Unity continued to coast upwards, reaching an estimated apogee of some 84,271 feet (25,685 meters).

A reusable space plane created to carry two pilots and up to six passengers (or research payloads) into suborbital space, the SS2 is Virgin Galactic's means for "transforming access to space", for paying customers and researchers, according to the company's vision statement.

The development of the VSS Unity spaceship is part of Branson's ambitious dream to fly paying tourists into space and let them enjoy the view of the Earth. The company can now proceed with new phases, including full-duration rocket burns and powered flight.

The company said in a statement: "The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing". While the company celebrates that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead.

Virgin Galactic is "back on track", the billionaire further tweeted. Passengers will prepare for three days at New Mexico's Spaceport America prior to the flight, and the whole thing will be filmed for each "astronaut" as a memento.

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