Virgin Galactic has engine ignition and goes supersonic

Virgin Galactic’s Spaceshiptwo was dropped from a carrier aircraft high above California’s Mojave Desert and ignited its rocket engine to go supersonic for a few seconds.

Although it has been in the air on more than 20 occasions, this was the first time its hybrid motor had been ignited.

It was only a short burn lasting about 16 seconds, but it propelled SS2 beyond the sound barrier to a speed of Mach 1.2. Future outings should see progressively longer burn durations, enabling the plane eventually to reach sufficient velocity to climb more than 100km into the sky.

Monday’s mission began at the Mojave Air and Space Port at just after 07:00 local time (14:00 GMT). Test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury were reported to be at the controls of SS2.

It took off slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which does the job of lifting the rocket plane to its launch altitude – some 45,000ft (14km).

A little under an hour later, SpaceShipTwo was released, dropped a short distance to get clear of WhiteKnightTwo and then lit its engine, which burns a combination of a solid rubber compound and liquid nitrous oxide.

After shutting down its motor, the vehicle then glided back to the Mojave runway, touching down just after 08:00 local time.

More than 500 people, including celebrities such as physicist Stephen Hawking and former Dallas actress Victoria Principal, have put down a deposit for a ticket that will cost them about $200,000.

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