Branson's Virgin Galactic reaches space


Virgin Galactic plane Image copyright Virgin Galactic
Image caption Virgin Galactic's plane will be carried to a height of 12,000m before its rocket ignites

The latest test flight by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic successfully rocketed to space and back.

The firm's SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship reached a height of 82.7km, beyond the altitude at which space is said to begin.

It marked the plane's fourth test flight and followed earlier setbacks in the firm's space programme.

Sir Richard is in a race with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to send the first fee-paying passengers into space.

He founded the commercial spaceflight company in 2004, shortly after Mr Musk started SpaceX and Jeff Bezos established Blue Origin.

In 2008, Virgin Galactic first promised sub-orbital spaceflight trips for tourists would be taking place "within 18 months". It has since regularly made similar promises to have space flights airborne in the near future.

But delays and a fatal crash in 2014 prevented Sir Richard's original ambitions.

On Thursday, the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship took off from the Mojave Desert in California.

The company said the space ship's motor burned for 60 seconds, travelling at 2.9 times the speed of sound as it gained height.

The plane carried two pilots and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger. It did not breach the 100km Karman Line, where Earth's atmosphere ends.

Before the flight, Virgin Galactic said the aim of the plane, also known as the VSS Unity, would "aim to fly higher and faster".

It planned to "burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach a space altitude for the first time", it added.

However, it cautioned: "Although this could happen as soon as the next flight, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone."