Virgin Galactic's suborbital space plane SpaceShipTwo crashed today (Oct. 31) in California during a rocket-powered test flight that resulted in the death of one pilot and injuries to the other one, a Kern County Sheriff's Department representative has confirmed.
SpaceShipTwo — which is built by the company Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic — "suffered a serious anomaly" after its rocket motor ignited, leading to the crash of the spacecraft. One of the pilots parachuted out of the prototype spaceliner, and the other pilot perished during the failed flight, Ray Pruitt, the sheriff's office spokesman, confirmed.
"We have one confirmed fatality and one survivor," Pruitt told Space.com. "The survivor was able to eject from the aircraft. He was located near one of the debris fields."
There are several different debris fields, Pruitt added.
One eyewitness to the event, Doug Messier, managing editor of Parabolicarc.com, saw SpaceShipTwo's engine sputter when it first came to life during the test flight.
"It looked like the engine didn't perform properly," Messier told Space.com's Tariq Malik. "Normally it would burn and it would burn for a certain period of time. It looked like it may have started and then stopped and then started again."
Then, Messier saw the ship break apart. "I didn't see an explosion, but it definitely broke into pieces," he added.
The test flight began today at around 12:19 p.m. EDT (1619 GMT), when SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo were cleared for takeoff from California's Mojave Air and Space Port, according to NBC News' Alan Boyle.
Today's test flight was the fourth powered test flight for SpaceShipTwo, and it marked the first time the space plane's rocket motor has been used in flight since January. Virgin Galactic successfully flew an unpowered "glide flight" with SpaceShipTwo earlier this month without starting the rocket engine.
The exact nature of the problem that caused the crash has not yet been released.
"Virgin Galactic's partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today," Virgin Galactic officials said in a statement on Twitter today. "During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo. WhiteKnightTwo landed safely."
WhiteKnightTwo is designed to take SpaceShipTwo (which holds six passengers and two pilots) up to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). The carrier aircraft is then expected to drop SpaceShipTwo, at which point the spaceliner's rocket comes to life, taking the spaceship into suborbital space.
Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said that the company was hoping to resume powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo.
"We've done a lot of development tests over the years, but what we've been doing recently are qualification tests where you're firing the same motor design multiple times to make sure you're seeing the same thing every time," Whitesides told Space.com in mid-October. "So now we feel ready to put that motor on the spaceship."
Currently, rides on SpaceShipTwo (which has not begun flying commercially yet) run for $250,000. More than 700 people have paid for seats on the spaceliner.
British billionaire Sir Richard Branson licensed the technology for SpaceShipOne — SpaceShipTwo's predecessor, built by Scaled Composites — after SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize was awarded after the spaceship became the first private, manned craft to fly to space and back twice in two weeks.
Editor's Note: This story is an updated version of an earlier report here: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Spacecraft Crashes During Test Flight
Space.com staff writer Calla Cofield (@callacofield) and managing editor Tariq Malik (@tariqjmalik) contributed to this report from New York City. Follow Miriam Kramer @mirikramer and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.
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