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updated 5/28/2009 7:53:18 PM ET 2009-05-28T23:53:18

The space tourism firm Virgin Galactic has successfully test-fired the rocket motor designed to boost a passenger spaceliner on suborbital joy rides into space.

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The hybrid rocket motor would launch Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spacecraft into suborbital space at speeds of over 2,500 mph (4,000 kph) to send ticket-carrying passengers soaring to heights of 65 miles (110 km) above the Earth.

This latest series of tests in the California desert follows flight tests for SpaceShipTwo's carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, dubbed "Eve." The Eve mother ship ended up with a slight ding on its tail in April during what was then its longest test run yet.

"SpaceShipTwo, which will air launch from Eve, is largely constructed and awaiting the start of its own test flight program later this year," said Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry eight people — six passengers and two pilots — into suborbital space and back for about $200,000 a ticket

Unlike typical rockets, SpaceShipTwo would ride into the upper atmosphere under Eve's wing before igniting its own rocket engine to make the final ascent into space. That means the rocket motor only needs to burn for a short time period.

"This means much less fuel is required — fuel which provides none of the toxins that are present in the solid rockets used by the space shuttle and satellite launches," Branson noted.

He added that the spaceship's carbon footprint for each of its passengers and crew would be just a quarter of that for a return trip from London to New York.

The hybrid nitrous oxide motor represents the largest of its kind in the world, designed by Virgin Galactic supplier Scaled Composites and its subcontractor SNC (Sierra Nevada Corporation). Safety features include the capability to shut down the system at any time, and permit the spaceship to glide back down for a conventional runway landing.

Virgin Galactic has already lined up $40 million and 300 people on its waiting lists for space tourism flights. They'll have to keep waiting for now, as flight testing for SpaceShipTwo is scheduled for later this year.

SpaceShipTwo is being built for Virgin Galactic by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. Rutan and his firm, with backing from millionaire Paul Allen, designed SpaceShipOne, an air-launched spacecraft that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for piloted suborbital spaceflight.

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