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The first piloted and rocket-powered craft to have been developed by a private company made its maiden flight on Wednesday, over the Mojave desert in California.
The craft, called Space Ship One (SS1), also become the first such craft to break the sound barrier, reaching a top speed of 930 mph (1490 km/h). The flight, exactly 100 years after the Wright brothers made their historic flight, marks a big step to winning the $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight.
SS1 soared to over 20 kilometres altitude (Image: Scaled Composites) SS1 has been developed by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company run by famed airplane pioneer Burt Rutan. Wednesday's flight followed a four-month series of unpowered drop and land tests.
Observers believe the flight could set the stage for the coming century in the same way the Wright brothers' began the last. Rick Tumlinson, head of the Space Frontier Foundation, says that, like the Wrights, "Scaled Composites is opening the next level of flight to the general public, and doing it without government money."
The fully reusable system uses two vehicles. The first, a turbojet-powered carrier plane called White Knight, carries the second, SS1, up to about 15,000 metres (48,000 feet). SS1 is then released by White Knight and ignites its innovative hybrid rocket motor.
Test pilot Brian Binnie, at the controls of SS1, began the flight at 0815 PST, after being released from the carrier plane by its pilot, Peter Siebold. The two were moving at Mach 0.55 at the time of release.
Binnie then pulled SS1's nose up to 60? and lit the rocket for 15 seconds. This blasted SS1 to 930 mph, or Mach 1.2, and an altitude of 68,000 feet (20,700 m).
Such heights have not been seen by any such rocket craft since the X-15 test flights in the 1960s. Finally, SS1 glided down for 12 minutes and returned to the runway.
There were no problems during the flight, but the craft's landing gear partly collapsed as it touched down and one wingtip hit the runway, causing minor damage.
To win the X-Prize, the craft will have to reach an altitude of 100,000 metres (328,000 feet) with three people aboard, and then repeat the process within two weeks. Rutan and his colleagues plan to continue their cautious approach and push a bit higher with each flight over the coming months as they work toward the prize flights.
X-Prize Foundation president Peter Diamandis told New Scientist on Wednesday that of the 27 teams signed up for the X-Prize, Scaled Composites' is the first to have performed a manned test flight.
Flying a person in a privately financed rocket as Scaled Composites has now done was "definitely one of the major hurdles" towards the X-Prize, Diamandis says. But they will now have to deal with increasing speeds and heating of the structure.
"There are at least three other teams on his tail," Diamandis adds. "I have no doubt that we're going to have a winner" within the next year.
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