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Branson's SpaceShipTwo rocketplane gets off ground

Remains firmly mated with mother, though

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This baby quite literally burns rubber. But not today

SpaceShipTwo, successor to the famous Ansari X-Prize winning craft SpaceShipOne, works in a similar fashion to its illustrious single-seat predecessor. Having been lifted to the maximum height and speed possible by the specialist, four-engined WhiteKnightTwo jet mothership, SS2 ignites its tyre-rubber-and-laughing-gas powered rocket.

The little spaceship still can't reach the height and speed required to achieve a sustained orbit above the Earth, but it's expected to be able to manage a brief ballistic arc out of the atmosphere. Its occupants will experience the stomach-churning sensation of free fall after the rocket shuts off, until SS2 begins to bite wind again following re-entry to the atmosphere - much as people riding "vomit comet" space agency jets already do.

Branson expects in time to operate a small fleet of five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnight carriers from a new purpose-built "spaceport" in New Mexico. The WhiteKnights may also be used for other tasks such as deploying rockets used to put small satellites into true orbit, or other aerospace projects requiring their high-altitude performance.

However Virgin Galactic says the SS2 test programme is expected to last until at least next year before commercial operations can commence. Many passengers have already reserved seats, which cost $200k. ®

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