By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A spaceplane from Virgin Galactic reached the edge of space on Thursday carrying a crew of six, making its first spaceflight test in nearly two years as the space tourism firm founded by Richard Branson prepares its long-awaited commercial service.
The company’s VSS Unity spaceplane dropped from its twin-fuselage carrier aircraft around 12:24 p.m. EDT (1624 GMT) over the desert of New Mexico and blasted off to the edge of space seconds later at roughly three times the speed of sound.
“Successful boost, WE HAVE REACHED SPACE!,” Virgin Galactic wrote on Twitter.
A live video stream from private video news group NASA Spaceflight showed VSS Unity jetting away from its carrier craft, its sole rocket engine leaving a trail of white exhaust as it climbed to an altitude of roughly 54.2 miles (87.2 km), beyond the U.S.-recognized boundary of Earth’s outer atmosphere and space.
The spaceplane glided back to land at around 12:37 p.m., Virgin Galactic said.
The company’s Unity 25 mission, lasting roughly 90 minutes in all, is a crucial final test flight before it flies its first commercial mission in late June, hoping to carry out a mission roughly every month thereafter.
The flight comes 22 months after billionaire Branson and employees rode to the edge of space aboard its centerpiece SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. Virgin Galactic had hoped that high-profile mission would open the door to routine flights soon after.
A safety probe into Branson’s flight by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration delayed the plans, as did a lengthy spacecraft upgrade period that lasted longer than Virgin Galactic anticipated.
Virgin Galactic pilots Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile piloted the carrier aircraft, named VMS Eve, which dropped the VSS Unity spacecraft at an altitude of 44,500 feet (13,563.6 m). VSS Unity spent a few minutes in the weightlessness of space before gliding back to land.
The test mission follows the type of rides Virgin Galactic intends to provide for a backlog of some 800 customers. Most have paid between $250,000 and $450,000 for a ticket.
The company in April conducted a successful glide test with VSS Unity, dropping it at 47,000 feet for a free-fall back to its runway, without having ignited its engine to go toward space.
Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow piloted the spaceplane. In the cabin was the company’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, astronaut instructor Luke Mays, senior engineering manager Christopher Huie and Jamila Gilbert, internal communications senior manager.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in WashingtonEditing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)