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."
"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?