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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, christened VSS Unity, fires up its hybrid rocket motor for the first time. (Mars Scientific / Trumbull Studios Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane flew a smooth, supersonic test flight today during its first rocket-powered outing since the first SpaceShipTwo broke up three and a half years ago.

The craft christened VSS Unity has taken flight a dozen times since its debut in February 2016, but the previous 11 tests didn’t involve lighting up the plane’s hybrid rocket motor.

That’s what made today’s flight test at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port special: After carrying the plane and its two pilots to an altitude of about 46,500 feet, Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two mothership, known as VMS Eve, released Unity from its underbelly.

Seconds later, the pilots turned on Unity’s engine for the first time.

It was at that point, back on Oct. 31, 2014, that things went wrong for Unity’s predecessor, VSS Enterprise. SpaceShipTwo’s wing-bending brake system was accidentally engaged while the rocket was firing, and aerodynamic forces caused the plane to break up.

The plane’s co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. Pilot Pete Siebold survived, thanks to his parachute, but was seriously injured during the breakup and fall.

In the years since then, Virgin Galactic has changed the SpaceShipTwo design and training routine to address shortcomings that were pointed up during the investigation.

Based on Virgin Galactic’s post-flight report, pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay encountered no serious problems this time around.

The rocket motor was fired for 30 seconds, significantly less than the full duration planned for spaceflight. That powered the plane upward at an 80-degree angle, at a top speed of Mach 1.87. The plane reached a maximum height of 84,271 feet (15.9 miles, or 25.7 kilometers), Virgin Galactic said.

“The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing,” Virgin Galactic said.

Eventually, the company aims to conduct full-up tests to send Unity and its pilots to the edge of outer space, at altitudes that could range from 50 miles to 62 miles (100 kilometers) and beyond.

Once the test program is completed, the focus of operations will shift to Spaceport America in New Mexico. About 700 customers have already put down deposits for space tourism packages costing as much as $250,000. Virgin Galactic’s founder, British billionaire Richard Branson, says he intends to be on the first commercial flight.

“Space feels tantalisingly close now,” Branson tweeted after Unity’s landing.

Here’s how the test flight was documented on Twitter:

Update for 12:13 p.m. PT April 6: This report has been updated with Virgin Galactic’s post-flight recap and a video feature on the flight.

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