Virgin Galactic's latest SpaceShipTwo test ends with a rocket motor failure (updated)

SpaceShipTwo and its crew are fine, but it's another setback.

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Ben Reagan for Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s latest major spacecraft test has ended unceremoniously. The company has revealed that SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor didn’t ignite during the test above Spaceport America, leaving the machine to once again glide to Earth. Both the craft and the crew are “in great shape,” and there are backup motors on hand. Still, the company could only promise that it would make another attempt “soon.”

It’s too early to determine a cause for the failure at this stage.

This won’t necessarily lead to a large delay, but it’s still an unpleasant setback for Virgin. This test would have been the last before a new test phase where the company would have specialists sit in the cabin to help improve the experience for passengers — some of the last steps before commercial service begins. If there’s anything more than a small delay, Virgin can’t start taking paying customers for a while longer.

The test was also supposed to be the first crewed spaceflight ever to launch from New Mexico, and the first from Spaceport America. Like it or not, the history making will have to wait at least a little while longer.

Update 12/13 9:45AM ET: Virgin has determined that the computer monitoring the rocket motor “lost connection,” tripping a failsafe that halted the rocket motor’s ignition. The company is investigating what caused the disconnection. You’ll learn about the next flight opportunity “in the near future,” Virgin said.

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