Virgin Galactic's space tourism rocket has taken another step in plans to fly paying passengers.
SpaceShipTwo has achieved its first solo glide flight.
It was carried aloft by its mothership, VMS Eve, to an altitude of 45,000 feet and released over the Mojave Desert in California.
The rocket flew freely for 11 minutes before landing at an airport runway followed by the mothership. The entire test flight lasted about 25 minutes.
Until now, the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo has flown attached to the wing of its special jet-powered mothership dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.
"It's a very big deal," Virgin president Sir Richard Branson said. "There are a number of big deals on the way to getting commercial space travel becoming a reality. This was a very big step. We now know that the spaceship glides. We know it can be dropped safely from the mothership and we know it can land safely. That's three big ticks."
SpaceShipTwo will make a series of additional glide flights before rocketing to space.
SpaceShipTwo, built by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, is based on a prototype that won a 10-million-dollar prize in 2004 for being the first manned private rocket to reach space.
Tickets to ride aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. Some 370 customers have plunked down deposits totalling $50m, according to Virgin Galactic.
Commercial flights will fly out of New Mexico where a spaceport is under construction. Officials from Virgin Galactic and other dignitaries will gather at the spaceport Oct. 22 for an event commemorating the finished runway. The event will also feature a flyover