Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane sported shiny new tails on Wednesday during a gliding test that should help set the stage for more ambitious flights to come.
The craft is designed to be set loose from a mothership called WhiteKnightTwo and then fire up its hybrid rocket engine to push upward to the edge of outer space, more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) up. No engine was used during Wednesday's unpowered test, but the crew did test an upgraded system for dumping the plane's oxidizer. That's one of the safety measures that would be used if the plane experienced a problem in flight.
Virgin Galactic's Twitter stream indicated that WhiteKnightTwo took off from California's Mojave Air and Space Port just before 9 a.m. PT (noon ET) and released SpaceShipTwo about 45 minutes later from an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet. The unpowered craft made an 11-minute gliding descent back to its landing in Mojave.
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"Great flying, guys!" one tweet read.
The interior surfaces of SpaceShipTwo's twin tail booms were covered with reflective Kapton plastic film, marking the plane's first flight with that feature. "The reflective coating is being tested as a method to maintain the temperatures on the vehicle's skin when SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor is firing, further reducing the heat loads on the reusable vehicle," Jessica Ballard, a spokeswoman for Virgin Galactic, told NBC News in an email.
Wednesday's flight was also a first for Mike "Sooch" Masucci, a former U-2 pilot who joined Virgin Galactic's aviation corps this year. Masucci took his first turn in SpaceShipTwo's cockpit — alongside Scaled Composites test pilot Mark Stucky, who has flown SpaceShipTwo 19 times.
SpaceShipTwo is in the midst of a test program that could lead to honest-to-goodness spaceflights early next year from Mojave, and the start of commercial service later in the year at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The current price of a ticket is $250,000, and more than 600 customers have made reservations. The passenger list includes such celebrities as Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Stephen Hawking.