Good news, spacefans: the image up top is real. Virgin Galactic's rocket plane made history this morning, igniting its engines for the first time and hitting supersonic speeds. The achievement brings would-be passengers one step closer to a trip to the edge of space.
Above: The first telescope image of SS2 in supersonic flight | Photo by MarsScientific.com and Clay Center Observatory – Click for Hi-Res
"Occasionally you have days that are ridiculously exciting," tweeted Virgin Group founder Richard Branson hours before this morning's trial run. "Today is such a day."
For going on two years now, Virgin Galactic has been conducting test flights of its spacecraft by dropping it from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane and having it glide – piloted, but unpowered – back to Earth. (The pair are pictured here, on the runway prior to this morning's flight.) After two dozen flawless – and, at times, gorgeous – test-drops, enthusiasts were becoming more than a little anxious to see what this suborbital space plane could do. This morning, a little before 8:00 am PT, we got our first glimpse of SpaceShipTwo's rocket-propelled abilities.
As per usual, SpaceShipTwo was released from an altitude of around 50,000 feet. But after gliding clear of WhiteKnightTwo, test pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury set a course for the upper atmosphere and ignited SS2's rockets for a full 16 seconds, breaking the speed of sound before cutting the engines and coasting safely back to Earth.
"This is a momentous day and the single most important flight test to date for our Virgin Galactic program," wrote Virgin Group founder Richard Branson in a blog post. "What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness Virgin Galactic go faster than the speed of sound."
Above: SpaceShipTwo, rockets blazing | Courtesy Virgin
"Like our hundreds of customers from around the world, my children and I cannot wait to get on board this fantastic vehicle for our own trip to space." Neither can we, Branson. Now who do we talk to about the $200,000 ticket price?