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Branson's corporate space vehicle Virgin Galactic takes to skies, shows viability

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By The Los Angeles Times
Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 6:18 p.m.

British billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space venture Virgin Galactic took one step closer to carrying tourists into space with its latest supersonic test flight.

On Thursday, the company's rocket plane went Mach 1.43 in the skies above the Mojave Desert. It is the second time the aircraft, named SpaceShipTwo, has broken the sound barrier.

The test flight is a key milestone in Virgin Galactic's effort to be the world's first commercial space liner, which would make several trips a day carrying scores of paying customers into space for a brief journey.

During the test, SpaceShipTwo was taken to about 46,000 feet by a carrier aircraft, and nearly one hour into the flight, it was dropped like a bomb.

SpaceShipTwo blasted to Mach 1.43, reaching about 56,000 feet in altitude.

A second key milestone achieved during the test was that the aircraft deployed its twin tail sections to a “feathered” position, which is designed to slow the aircraft's descent and allow it to return softly to Earth.

The one-of-a-kind design is vital to reducing wear and tear on the six-person rocket ship so it can make several commercial trips each day into outer space.

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