31 October 2014
Last updated at 21:43
At least one person is dead and another injured after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space tourism craft crashed in the California desert.
The craft was flying a manned test when it experienced what the company described as “a serious anomaly”.
It was undergoing its first powered test flight since January over the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson tweeted he was flying to California “to be with the team”.
“Thoughts with all @virgingalactic Scaled, thanks for all your messages of support,” Sir Richard said.
Both pilots were employed by Scaled Composites. One was pronounced dead at the scene while the other was transported to a local hospital in an unknown condition.
Television images shot from a helicopter showed what appeared to be wreckage bearing the Virgin logo. Officials have said the debris is currently strewn over a large area.
In a statement, Virgin Galactic said the “vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo”.
The aircraft that held the spaceship, known as White Knight 2, has landed safely, Virgin Galactic said.
Sir Richard said his thoughts are with the team
Ken Brown, a photographer who witnessed the crash, said the craft exploded after it was released from a plane that carries it to a high altitude.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board will begin their work on Saturday morning to investigate the cause of the accident, which will likely take several days.
“We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic.
“The future rests in many ways on hard days like this but we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks working so hard on this to understand this and move forward.”
Analysis: David Shukman, BBC science editor
Even as details emerge of what went wrong, this is clearly a massive setback to a company hoping to pioneer a new industry of space tourism. Confidence is everything and this will not encourage the long list of celebrity and millionaire customers waiting for their first flight.
An innovative design for a spacecraft combined with a new type of rocket motor to make the development challenge exceptionally hard. Despite an endless series of delays to its spacecraft, Virgin Galactic has over the years managed to maintain some very optimistic public relations and positive media coverage.
I interviewed Sir Richard Branson when he first announced the venture and his enthusiasm and determination were undoubted. But his most recent promises of launching the first passenger trip by the end of this year had already started to look unrealistic some months ago.
Today’s accident will delay plans even further. Space is never easy, and making it routine is even harder.
Will crash set back space tourism?
SpaceShipTwo under rocket power in 2013
SpaceShipTwo, carried by a twin-hulled aircraft named Eve
Branson unveiled the spacecraft in 2009
Virgin Galactic has been a front-runner in the nascent space-tourism industry and Sir Richard said earlier in October he expected to see the craft make it to sub-orbital space within a few months.
More than 800 people have already paid or put down deposits for a trip on SpaceShipTwo, which costs about $200,000 (£125,000) per person
Earlier in the week, an unmanned supply rocket called Antares exploded shortly after its launch from the US state of Virginia.
It was carrying cargo to the International Space Station.