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SpaceShipTwo in flight
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides through a test flight. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic said its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane today executed a successful gliding flight test that was “essentially a dry run for rocket-powered flights.”

“Our major first today though was that with the exception of the rocket motor fuel grain … we flew with all the spaceship’s principal propulsion components on-board and live,” the company said in a post-flight statement.

The hybrid propulsion system’s tanks were pressurized with helium and nitrous oxide, and the plane carried a ballast tank filled with a half-ton of water to simulate the weight and positioning of the solid-rocket motor. The pilots even practiced venting nitrous oxide while the rocket plane, christened VSS Unity, was still mounted on its White Knight Two mothership.

The mothership, known as VMS Eve, carried Unity to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and released it for flight. Unity then glided back down to its home base at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The flight included a tryout of VSS Unity’s wing-flexing system, which is used to slow down the plane’s descent for a “feathered re-entry.” The maneuver has been likened to the effect that feathers have in making a badminton shuttlecock float through the air.

“We are really pleased with what we saw today,” Virgin Galactic quoted chief pilot David Mackay as saying. “We collected hundreds of gigabytes of data for us to review, and from the pilots’ point of view, it felt really wonderful.”

Although Unity has been doing only unpowered flights so far, Virgin Galactic is expected to start firing up the hybrid rocket engine soon. The company said today’s test was “an important step towards powered flights.”

If all goes well, test pilots could start riding VSS Unity across the boundary of outer space by the end of this year, according to British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder.

Branson’s plan calls for the first passengers to start climbing on board next year at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic says about 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 a ticket for a suborbital space tour package.

Today’s outing was the 10th test flight for Unity, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo plane, and the 234th flight for VMS Eve.

The first SpaceShipTwo, dubbed VSS Enterprise, was destroyed in October 2014 when the feathered-wing braking system was deployed prematurely. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed. Pilot Pete Siebold survived, thanks to his parachute, but was seriously injured in the process.

After a federal investigation, Virgin Galactic responded by beefing up the safety measures and training procedures for SpaceShipTwo.

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