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SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides through the skies over California’s Mojave Desert. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Unity, took its second free-flying test run today, closing off a rebuilding year for the space venture.

At the start of the year, the company was still finishing up work on its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, incorporating the lessons learned from the breakup of the first SpaceShipTwo in October 2014.

That accident occurred during a rocket-powered test, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury and severely injuring pilot Pete Siebold. Investigators blamed pilot error as well as a host of other contributing factors.

VSS Unity rolled out this February amid a burst of Virgin-style hoopla, and since then the SpaceShipTwo team has been conducting a low-profile series of tests. The 27-foot-wide plane was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership for its first unpowered glide flight on Dec. 3.

Today’s flight from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port followed a similar profile, with the aim of checking the craft’s aerodynamics under a variety of conditions. Virgin Galactic’s Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky repeated their roles as SpaceShipTwo’s pilots.

These tweets told the tale:

If all goes well, Virgin Galactic and its manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, could begin rocket-powered tests by mid-2017, leading up to crewed flights that hit outer-space altitudes. Once the testing team is satisfied with VSS Unity’s performance, operations will shift from Mojave to Spaceport America in New Mexico.

About 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 each for suborbital space rides on VSS Unity. The schedule for commercial operations depends on how the test program goes, but it’s not out of the question for the first of those customers to climb on board by this time next year.

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