WASHINGTON — The developer of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space tourism vehicle has won U.S. regulatory approval to begin powered flight testing of the rocket-propelled craft later this year.

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s president and chief executive, said in a May 30 press release that the experimental launch permit from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizes the Scaled Composites-led development team “to progress to the rocket-powered phase of test flight, bringing us a major step closer to bringing our customers to space.”

Virgin Galactic’s flight system consists of two vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Since late 2010, Scaled Composites, which designed and developed both craft, has been conducting unpowered tests in which SpaceShipTwo is released from WhiteKnightTwo and glides back to a runway landing.

Virgin Galactic says it has taken deposits from more than 500 customers agreeing to pay $200,000 for a ride on SpaceShipTwo. The company, led by entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, has not set a date for beginning commercial service.

The company said May 30 that it expects to begin rocket-powered test flights before the end of 2012.

“In preparation for those powered flights, SpaceShipTwo will soon return to flight, testing the aerodynamic performance of the spacecraft with the full weight of the rocket motor system on board,” Virgin Galactic said in the press release. “Integration of key rocket motor components, already begun during a now-concluding period of downtime for routine maintenance, will continue in the autumn. Scaled Composites expects to begin rocket powered, supersonic test flights under the just-issued experimental permit toward the end of the year.”

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...