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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo passes key flight test

The SpaceShipTwo during its flight on Dec. 19. A Virgin Galactic photo

NEW YORK (PTI): A spaceplane built by Richard Branson's spaceflight company has successfully completed a key flight test that would eventually enable it to carry passengers to space.

After a high-altitude release from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, SpaceShipTwo was piloted to a smooth runway touchdown, scoring a successful test drop and checking off a number of milestones at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Dec. 19.

"Today was a big step closer to first powered flight," said George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, a spaceliner firm backed by British entrepreneur Branson.

"We had a variety of systems newly installed on the vehicle," Whitesides told

"The most important were the components of the rocket system, including all the flight-ready tanks and valves. But we also flew with flight-ready thermal protection materials on the leading edges of the vehicle for the first time," he said.

"We still have a bit more work to do before we will be ready to ignite the rocket, including two more glide flights," Whitesides said. "2013 will be a big year," he said.

SpaceShipTwo landed under "crystal clear Mojave dawn skies," veteran Mojave Air and Space Port tarmac watcher Bill Deaver told the website.

"It looked like they tried a new, long, high key pattern of one circuit around the field rather than the former, shorter circuit on landing," Whitesides said.

SpaceShipTwo is a hybrid motor-powered vehicle designed to fly six passengers and two pilots to the edge of space, without making a full orbit of Earth.

Commercial operations of the craft will eventually be carried out at New Mexico's Spaceport America. The price per seat for a SpaceShipTwo space traveler is USD 200,000.

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