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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashes: 1 dead, 1 injured

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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwp rocket plane during a test earlier in 2014. NBC News photo Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwp rocket plane during a test earlier in 2014. NBC News photo

(NBC News) - Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane exploded and crashed during a powered test flight on Friday, resulting in one fatality and one injury, authorities said.

The explosion occurred after the plane was released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and fired up its rocket engine in flight for the first time in more than nine months.

"During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle," Virgin Galactic said in a statement. "The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely. Our first concern is the status of the pilots."

Jesse Borne, an officer at the California Highway Patrol, told NBC News that there was one fatality and one major injury.

The flight originated from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) north of Los Angeles. The Federal Aviation Administration said two crew members were aboard SpaceShipTwo — which is consistent with Virgin Galactic's practice of having two test pilots who are equipped with parachutes.

Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, told NBC News that he saw an explosion high in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert. The Mojave airport's director, Stuart Witt, said the craft crashed north of Mojave. He deferred further comment pending a news conference that is scheduled for 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET).

Keith Holloway, a Washington-based spokesman for the National Transportation and Safety Board, said "we are in the process of collecting information." The FAA said it was also investigating the incident.

New kind of fuel tested

During the nine months since the previous rocket-powered test in January, Virgin Galactic switched SpaceShipTwo's fuel mixture from a rubber-based compound to a plastic-based mix — in hopes that the new formulation would boost the hybrid rocket engine's performance.

Before Friday's flight, the most recent aerial outing was on Oct. 7, when SpaceShipTwo took an unpowered, gliding flight back to the Mojave runway.

The latest test got off to a slow start. SpaceShipTwo spent more than three hours on the Mojave runway, slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, while the ground team assessed whether the weather was right for flight. The go-ahead was finally given for takeoff at 9:19 a.m. PT (12:19 p.m. ET).

It took WhiteKnightTwo about 45 minutes to get to 50,000 feet, the altitude at which it released SpaceShipTwo for free flight.

The flight was part of Virgin Galactic's long-running program to test SpaceShipTwo in preparation for suborbital trips to the edge of outer space. Virgin Galactic had said the first trip to an outer-space altitude — usually defined as 100 kilometers, or 62 miles — could have taken place before the end of the year, depending on how the tests went. The company's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, was hoping to ride on the first commercial flight next year.

More than 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 for a ride on the rocket plane.

NBC News' Julianne Pepitone and James Eng contributed to this report. NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo and televise Branson's spaceflight.
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