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Virgin Galactic takes to higher skies

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Commercial space travel took a giant leap toward (mega-rich) mankind on 5th September, as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo made its second successful rocket-powered flight test.

The private spaceship flew higher and faster than ever before, reaching a maximum altitude of 65,000 feet (19,800 meters), smashing through the atmosphere at Mach 1.6 (about 761 mph at sea level). The rocket engine was engaged for a total of 20 seconds, before the SpaceShipTwo was able to successfully demonstrate its re-entry mechanism - rotating its wings and tail upward to allow for a gradual descent. If you're not a fan of turbulence (or spending several hundred thousand pounds on a single journey), this one might not be for you.

The demonstration was a cause for excitement for Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, who plans to be a passenger in the Virgin Galactic's first commercial flight. "It was particularly thrilling to see for the first time today the whole elegant system in action during a single flight, including the remarkable feathering re-entry system," said Branson in a statement. "We are on track for a 2014 start of commercial service... I can't wait to get up there."

Once the ship gains all of its relevant safety certificates (it's a little more complicated than an MOT), Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites will begin flying the first 600 customers to have signed up to the sub-orbital flight, reported to include the likes of Angelina Jolie, Michael Schumacher and Stephen Hawking. Passengers will experience weightlessness for a number of minutes during the flight, along with probable waves of fear and sudden realisation that they might have preferred to have watched a flight video instead.

Watch the below video to see the SpaceShipTwo carried into test position by the WhiteKnightTwo, engage its rocket, before slowly drifting back down to Earth.

(Images: Rex; YouTube)

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