April 3, 2013 at 8:49 PM ET
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane glided its way through another test flight on Wednesday, in preparation for its first powered launch later this year.
The plane was carried up from California's Mojave Air and Space Port, nestled beneath its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, at 7:18 a.m. PT (10:18 a.m. ET), Parabolic Arc's Doug Messier reported. After its release at high altitude, SpaceShipTwo successfully landed back on the airport runway at 8:40 a.m. PT.
"This is the second of three planned glide flights with the engine configuration installed, prior to the start of powered flights later," Messier wrote. During powered test flights, SpaceShipTwo will light up its hybrid rocket engine after WhiteKnightTwo sets it loose.
"We'll burn it for longer and longer on each test to go faster and higher until we do a space shot," George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's president and CEO, told the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal last month. "We hope to get there before the end of the year, if not before."
Virgin Galactic's plan calls for SpaceShipTwo's test pilots to put the plane through a series of trips to outer space, reaching altitudes beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers). Then it will be time to take on paying passengers. More than 500 customers have put down $200,000 for tour packages that will give them a few minutes of weightlessness and an awesome view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.
Although the tests are being conducted in California, the passenger trips are expected to be run from Spaceport America in New Mexico, starting as early as next year. A key requirement for the New Mexico operation was met this week when the state's governor, Susana Martinez, signed a law that provides more protection for the infant spaceship industry.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log and the rest of NBCNews.com's science and space coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.