April 6, 2018 / 6:38 AM / 3 months ago

Virgin Galactic tests rocket ship, three years after fatal accident

(Reuters) - Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic conducted a supersonic test flight over the Sierra Nevada mountains of its SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship on Thursday, the company said, three years after a fatal accident on an earlier version of the ship.

At about 8 a.m. local time, The VMS Eve carrier plane took off from Mojave, California, carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity before releasing it 46,500 feet (14,000 m) above ground, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

A rocket motor then accelerated Unity to Mach 1.87 during a 30-second rocket burn before the ship’s two pilots shut it down. The spaceship reached 84,000 feet (25,000 m) before making a smooth runway landing, the company said.

“Space feels tantalisingly close now,” Branson Tweeted after the test flight.

Virgin Galactic’s original SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke apart during an October 2014 test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, in an accident that was ultimately attributed to pilot error. Both were employees of Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary based in Mojave that built the vehicle.

The Spaceship Company, a Virgin Galactic sister firm also owned by Branson’s London-based Virgin Group, built the new SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, the second in a planned fleet of five, and took over the test-flight program from Scaled.

In 2016, the space company was granted an operating license to fly its passenger ship with the world’s first paying space tourists once final safety tests are completed.

The company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo at $250,000 a seat.

Rides will take passengers about 62 miles (100 km) above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth set against the blackness of space.

Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, editing by Larry King

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