WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space tourism vehicle reached its highest altitude to date in a rocket-powered test flight Jan. 10 over Mojave, Calif., the company reported.

SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry paying passengers into suborbital space, climbed to more than 21,000 meters and reached a top speed of Mach 1.4 during the flight, which also tested the vehicle’s reaction control system — which will enable it to maneuver in space — and a thermal coating on its tail boom, Virgin Galactic said. It was the third supersonic powered test flight for SpaceShipTwo, which separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at an altitude of 14,000 meters.

SpaceShipTwo’s atmospheric re-entry system — the vehicle’s tail tilts upward to enable it to drift part of the way down, like a badminton shuttlecock — also was tested during the flight, Virgin Galactic said. Once SpaceShipTwo is back in the atmosphere, the tail tilts back to its normal position, allowing the craft to glide the rest of the way down for a runway landing.

“This flight was the third opportunity to see a supersonic, rocket-powered test of the Virgin Galactic system after dozens of successful subsonic test flights,” Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides said in a prepared statement. “Today’s flight was another resounding success.” 

Virgin Galactic intends to begin commercial operations this year from Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M. The test flights are taking place at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

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Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...