One pilot has been killed and another is seriously injured after a Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashed on a powered test flight over California’s Mojave Desert.
The tragedy occurred after SpaceShipTwo fired up its rocket following a high-altitude drop from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo mothership.
The co-pilot suffered moderate to major injuries when he ejected from the rocket plane and parachuted to the ground.
Virgin Galactic, part of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, was aiming to begin tourist flights to the edge of space next year.
Company chief executive George Whitesides told a news conference: “Space is hard and today was a tough day.”
Stuart Witt, chief executive of the space port, said the cause of the crash was not clear.
Sir Richard said his thoughts were with all those at Virgin Galactic and partner business Scaled Composites.
“Thanks for all your messages of support,” he tweeted. “I’m flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team.”
He is expected to arrive on Saturday morning.
The company said earlier in a statement to Sky News that SpaceShipTwo had “suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle”.
WhiteKnightTwo landed safely.
Virgin Galactic said it would work with the authorities to determine the cause of the accident. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.
It is the second disaster involving a US spacecraft this week.
On Tuesday, another private company’s unmanned rocket exploded six seconds after launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Virgin Galactic’s 60ft (18 metre) long SpaceShipTwo was testing a redesigned rocket motor as it made its first powered flight since January.
The rocket plane, which was attached to the underside of WhiteKnightTwo, took off at 9:19am local time (4:19pm GMT) on Friday from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
It is not the first accident involving SpaceShipTwo.
During testing for the development of its rocket motor in July 2007, an explosion at the Mojave spaceport killed three workers and critically injured three others.
It is the commercial version of SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft to reach the edge of space in 2004, now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Virgin Galactic aims to become the world’s first commercial “spaceline”, sending customers willing to pay up to $250,000 (£156,000) for a short journey into zero gravity and a glimpse of the planet from the edge of space.
The company previously said it has accepted more than $80m (£50m) in deposits from hundreds of people who hope to be among the first space tourists.
British physicist Stephen Hawking, comedian Russell Brand, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher, and singer Justin Bieber are said to have signed up.
After launching from New Mexico, it is envisaged that each spaceship will take six passengers on a journey of between two and three hours just over 62 miles (100km) from Earth.
Sir Richard has said he hopes eventually to build a hotel in space.