Virgin Galactic plans powered space flight test within the year

It's been slow going for the world's first commercial passenger space program, but Virgin Galactic is slowly but surely making progress. While it's already gotten its SpaceShipTwo sub-orbital craft beyond the reaches of Earth's atmosphere in successful tests before, it only did so with the help of a carrier vehicle, then glided back to earth and landed conventionally. The company hopes to install and test the craft's rocket engine before the end of 2012, marking a major milestone in Virgin Galactic's plans to create a space tourism business.

Virgin's vice president of special projects broke the news while speaking to the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, noting that while exact dates haven't been set, the company expects to overcome the technical challenges before it. Virgin Galactic has already pre-sold almost 500 seats on the 8-person spacecraft at a whopping $200,000 a piece. and if all goes well with the testing in 2012 and 2013, they could begin some time next year or in 2014.

Virgin's low-orbit plans include a two-stage process: first the carrier vehicle WhiteKnightTwo brings SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet. Then SpaceShipTwo detaches from the carrier mechanism, powers its rocket engine and climbs to just over 300,000 feet, putting the craft in orbit for a single trip around the planet before returning and landing. A successful test of the second half of the flight plan would be a major accomplishment for Virgin Galactic and its eccentric owner Richard Branson. There's no hard schedule planned at the moment – like the company's earlier efforts, they intend to "fly when we're ready".