By Jason Rhian

At 8 a.m. PDT, over the deserts of Mojave, California Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2), ferried aloft by the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, was released and the space plane ignited its rocket engine and completed its highest, fastest flight to date. The spacecraft also demonstrated its patented “feathering” reentry maneuver as it returned back to Mojave Air and Space Port. According to a VG release, all of the flight’s objectives were accomplished.

WK2 took SS2 up to an altitude of approximately 46,000 feet (14,020 m) – the WK2 carrier aircraft was piloted by VG’s Chief pilot Dave Mackay along with Mike Alsbury. Down below, in SS2, Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols were in charge of SS2. After being released, Stucky and Nichols rode SS2 up to an altitude of 69,000 feet (21,031 m), reaching a maximum speed of Mach 1.43. The entire flight lasted less than an hour and half, returning to the Space Port at 9:25 a.m. EDT. Upon returning to Earth, the pilots stated that the flight went well.

“This flight milestone represents a key step forward for the Virgin Galactic team,” said Chairman of Aabar Investments PJS, H.E. Khadem Al Qubaisi. “The successful completion of all major aspects of the flight mission demonstrates that we are very close to achieving one of Galactic’s key goals: commercializing access to space for the broader public. I would like to congratulate the whole team on their continued success.”

For his part, Branson was ecstatic about today’s flight, especially the renowned safety feature which will ensure passengers have a smooth flight back to terra-firma.

“We couldn’t be more delighted to have another major supersonic milestone under our belts as we move toward a 2014 start of commercial service,” Branson said. “It was particularly thrilling to see for the first time today the whole elegant system in action during a single flight, including the remarkable feathering reentry system. It was this safety feature more than anything else that originally persuaded us that the overall design of the system was uniquely fit for purpose. Everything we have seen today just confirms that view. Congratulations to all involved!”

VG is touted as the world’s first commercial spaceline and is owned by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar InvestmentsPJS. The company has already signed up numerous customers who want to become astronauts themselves. Currently, the company is estimating that these first commercial flights will begin next year.

“Today, we expanded the SpaceShipTwo rocket-powered flight test envelope with a longer burn duration and robust testing of the feather mechanism, supersonic aerodynamics and wing lift structure,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “Each powered flight of SpaceShipTwo yields cumulative progress that builds the foundation for safe and exciting commercial space flights.”

Below, video of the flight with a message from Branson, courtesy of Virgin Galactic: