Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital reusable spaceplane went supersonic Monday morning during a 16-sec. flight test of its hybrid rocket motor.

The short-duration flight over Mojave, Calif., with two test pilots from Scaled Composites at the controls, brings SS2 a major step closer to its first flight into space, and ultimately to flights with paying tourists and researchers in the pressurized cabin.

Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 10 a.m. EDT, with the SS2 vehicle nestled beneath its twin fuselages. The craft was dropped about 45 min. later, at an altitude of 47,000 ft. Pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Mike Alsbury ignited the engine, which boosted the SS2 to an altitude of 55,000 ft. at Mach 1.2 during its 16 sec. of powered flight. The SS2 returned to a safe landing at Mojave just after 11 a.m. EDT.

“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” states George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic president and CEO. “The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”

That flight could come later this year, as Virgin works toward establishing a commercial human transport business to give space tourists and scientific researchers a taste of the space environment during suborbital flights that will include about five minutes of weightlessness as the SS2 goes through the top of its trajectory.