SpaceShipTwo ignites engine in-flight

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Virgin Galactic has conducted the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo, the crewed suborbital vehicle set to become the first capable of routine commercial space tourism.

The flight, which included a 16s engine burn, has been eagerly anticipated since installation of the Sierra Nevada-built engine, installed incrementally in late 2012 and early 2013. The spacecraft reportedly exceeded the speed of sound.

It was transported to altitude by WhiteKnightTwo, its dedicated carrier aircraft, lifting off from Mojave Airport, California. The hybrid-fueled rocket engine, built by Sierra Nevada, is powered by liquid nitrous-oxide and solid hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene. Though the engine has been tested many times before in a test stand, today's flight marks the first airborne ignition.

Recent unpowered glide flights have seen the spacecraft stream oxidizer, but without fuel. If all goes according to plan, the first test flight into space should follow two to three flights later, with the first commercial flight in late 2013.

The engine is descended from that used to power predecessor SpaceShipOne, a Scaled Composites-designed suborbital vehicle that in 2004 became the first reusable commercial spacecraft to pass the von Karman line into outer space.

A second SpaceShipTwo/WhiteKnightTwo pair is under construction at The Spaceship Company (TSC), a venture specifically formed to build them.