SpaceShipTwo to Test Fly in Space by Year End, Virgin Galactic Says

Company says passenger travel could begin in 2013 or 2014.

SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo

The space tourism venture launched by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is looking to test fly SpaceShipTwo outside of Earth's atmosphere before the end of this year, the company said earlier this week.

To date, the carbon-composite spacecraft has completed 16 glide tests, as well as 15 tests while attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. ** Virgin Galactic** says it is making preparations to install the rocket motor in the spaceship later this year, with the first rocket-powered test flights to follow thereafter.

Designed and crafted by Scaled Composites, SpaceShipTwo spans 60 feet long and is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers. The spacecraft is built to be launched from WhiteKnightTwo at altitudes as high as 50,000 feet, after which SpaceShipTwo's hybrid rocket motor will carry it to suborbital altitudes. Upon re-entering the atmosphere, where SpaceShipTwo can then glide back to Earth for a runway landing, the spacecraft relies on its unique feathering system.

According to Virgin Galactic, SpaceShipTwo is the first of what will eventually become a five spacecraft operation. Close to 500 seats on SpaceShipTwo have already been sold to future space tourist hopefuls, at $200,000 a pop. NASA also recently signed a deal with Virgin Galactic for three charter flights on SpaceShipTwo, with the possibility for two additional flights.

Original timetables called for initiative of passenger flights in 2008, but company officials are now saying passenger service could start as early as 2013 or 2014. They emphasized, however, that they are not in a race to achieve the feat.