For the first time in nearly four years, Virgin Galactic has gone supersonic.
Richard Branson's space company on Thursday completed its first rocket-powered test flight since 2014. Its carrier, the SpaceShipTwo, successfully deployed a smaller craft 10 miles above the earth's surface. The test brings the firm a big step closer to its ultimate goal of taking tourists to space.
Virgin Galactic had paused its rocket-powered test flights since the October 2014 crash that killed one of its pilots. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the tragedy was caused by a combination of human error and a lack of safety mechanisms to prevent such mistakes. The company has spent the past several years revamping its system and performing lower-speed test runs.
Virgin Galactic's launch platform, the SpaceShipTwo, is essentially two planes attached to one another, with the smaller VSS Unity underneath. Once the carrier reaches high enough altitude and speed, it releases the Unity, which can then travel at 3,000 mph to the lower reaches of space.
This test run didn't quite make it that high. Space is generally delineated at an altitude of 62 miles. The Unity maxed out at about 15 miles on Thursday, according to the company. It didn't approach its eventual maximum speed, though it did break the sound barrier (approximately 767 mph).
The flight was the fourth time overall that a Virgin Galactic spacecraft fired its rocket engines during flight, and the first time since the 2014 crash.
Virgin will need to reach space--and do so several times--before it can send tourists there. In October, Branson said he expected the company to make it to space around January 2018.
A Virgin Galactic representative did not return Inc.'s request for an updated projected timeline. Branson, though, seems to think the company is getting closer:
.@virgingalactic back on track. Successful powered flight, Mach 1.6. Data review to come, then on to the next flight. Space feels tantalisingly close now.-- Richard Branson (@richardbranson) April 5, 2018
Eventually, Virgin hopes to send tourists on two-hour flights that provide views of Earth previously only seen by astronauts, plus about four minutes of weightlessness. Tickets cost $250,000, and the 700-person waiting list includes celebrities like Katy Perry and Tom Hanks.