Virgin Galactic's reusable space vehicle SpaceShipTwo reached record heights Friday during a key test flight in preparation of transporting customers into space this year.

The manned vehicle took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:22 a.m. PST, carried by the company's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. At an altitude of 46,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo was released and its motor ignited, propelling the spaceship to a record 71,000 feet and a maximum speed of Mach 1.4.

Under evaluation was the vehicle's Reaction Control System and thermal protection coating. The RCS is designed to allow pilots to maneuver the vehicle in space so as to grant passengers the best view possible as well as help position the spacecraft for re-entry. The reflective protection coating on SpaceShipTwo's inner tail boom surfaces is designed to help maintain vehicle skin temperatures while the rocket is engaged. 

"Today, we had our own Chief Pilot flying another flawless supersonic flight and proving the various systems required to take us safely to space, as well as providing the very best experience while we're up there," said Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group owns the company along with Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments PJS.   

"I couldn't be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights," Branson said, adding that this year "will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space."

The flight was a "dream come true" for Chief Pilot Dave Mackay.

"I have watched SS2 evolve over the years into an incredible vehicle that is going to open up space to more people than ever before," he said. "To be behind the controls and fly it as the rocket ignited is something I will never forget. She flew brilliantly. All the tests went really well and generated vital data that will be used to further fine-tune our operations."