Virgin Galactic's space ship has arrived in space for the first time.
The journey is a major breakthrough in attempts to bring private space travel to the masses. And it marks the first time a US commercial human flight has reached space since 2011, when the space programme came to an end.
SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, took off in the early morning sunshine at the Mojave test centre in California. Soon after, it was released by its carrier plane around 43,000 feet and climbed up to altitudes of around 271,000 feet, touching the edge of space and marking a major achievement for the company.
As it arrived, the official Virgin Galactic Twitter account posted: "SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space."
Flown by two pilots, Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft's launch was watched by hundreds of the company's employees and family members on Thursday.
Richard Branson shed a few tears and hugged his son Sam as they watched the rocket plane head into space.
Speaking after take-off, the company's founder said: "I'm not supposed to say this, but hopefully we will go to space today.
"Hopefully we'll have a bit of magic in the next couple of hours."
The company has repeatedly stressed that safety was a priority, particularly after a high-profile and deadly crash in 2014.
"We've had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team," George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, told reporters during a facilities tour on Wednesday in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane.
While critics point to Branson's unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin's first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen "in months and not years."
Thursday's test flight will have two pilots onboard, four NASA research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger. More than 600 people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard Virgin's suborbital missions, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000.
Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July. Tickets will be offered ahead of the first commercial launch, and test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.
Other firms planning a variety of passenger spacecraft include Boeing Co, Elon Musk's SpaceX and late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Stratolaunch.
In September, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo, would be the company's first passenger on a voyage around the moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.
Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla , said the Big Falcon Rocket could conduct its first orbital flights in two to three years as part of his grand plan to shuttle passengers to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars.
According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to at least 50 miles (80.47 km) above Earth, high enough for passengers to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.
Bezos' New Shepard has already flown to that altitude - an internationally recognized boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space known as the Karman line - though the Blue Origin trip did not carry humans.
Virgin's Thursday launch likely will not go as high as the Karman line. Virgin's pilots are aiming to soar 50 miles into the sky - the U.S. military and NASA's definition of the edge of space and high enough to earn commercial astronaut wings by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Thursday's test flight carried two pilots, four NASA research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger.
Additional reporting by agencies
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