Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's commercial spaceline, has successfully completed a third rocket-powered supersonic test flight with its SpaceShipTwo craft, soaring to 71,000 feet for the first time.
The reusable spaceship is set to be the first ever to take tourists into space later this year - at a cost of $250,000 a ticket. Celebrities including Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, as well as Mr Branson himself, have already reserved their seats.
To achieve the heights, the SpaceShipTwo was airlifted by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to an altitude around 46,000 feet, before ignited its rocket motor upon release, powering the spaceship to the planned 71,000 ft altitude.
The flight, which departed from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Californian desert on Friday morning piloted by Virgin Galactic's chief pilot Dave Mackay, was the first time rocket power had been used by the firm.
The spaceship's Reaction Control System and its unique feather re-entry system, as well as a newly installed thermal protection coating, were also tested for the first time.
It does however still have a long way to go before space is reached by the craft - the Kármán line, which commonly represents the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space, is at 328,084 feet.
Mr Branson said: "I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights. 2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.
"Today, we had our own Chief Pilot flying another flawless supersonic flight and proving the various systems required to take us safely to space, as well as providing the very best experience while we’re up there."
"I have watched SS2 evolve over the years into an incredible vehicle that is going to open up space to more people than ever before," added Mr Mackay.
"To be behind the controls and fly it as the rocket ignited is something I will never forget. She flew brilliantly. All the tests went really well and generated vital data that will be used to further fine-tune our operations."
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