Virgin Galactic crash: Mojave investigation under way

US officials have started to investigate why a Virgin Galactic space rocket crashed over California’s Mojave Desert on a test flight.

Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson said he was “determined to find out what went wrong” and learn from the tragedy.

The co-pilot, named as Michael Alsbury, 39, died when SpaceShipTwo exploded shortly after take-off on Friday.

Local police said Peter Siebold, the pilot who survived the crash, had suffered “moderate to major injuries”.

Scaled Composites, the company both pilots worked for, said Mr Siebold, 43, was “alert and talking with his family and doctors”.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team arrived in Mojave on Saturday.

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said the team expected to be at the crash site for four to seven days, but added that the full investigation could take up to 12 months to complete.

Virgin Galactic would be free to conduct further flights during that time, he added.

Speaking at the at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the craft was being developed, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard said “nobody underestimates the risks involved in space travel”.

Virgin had hoped to launch commercially in 2015. It has already taken more than 700 flight bookings at $250,000 (£156,000) each, with Sir Richard pledging to travel on the first flight.

“We owe it to our test pilots to find out what went wrong, and once we find out, if we can overcome it, we will make sure that the dream lives on,” Sir Richard added.

Sir Richard said Virgin Galactic and its partners had “been undertaking a comprehensive testing programme for many years and safety has always been our number one priority”.

A team of between 13 and 15 NTSB investigators – including specialists in structures, systems, engines and vehicle performance – are taking part in the inquiry.

Their work would include detailed examination of all available data, work at the crash site and interviewing witnesses, Mr Hart said.

“This was a test flight and test flights are typically very well documented in terms of data,” he told reporters.

He said that initial examination of the debris, which was scattered over an area measuring five miles from end to end, indicated there was an “in-flight break-up”.

Police had initially secured the crash site in the Mojave Desert, north-east of Los Angeles, amid fears that some of the debris could be explosive.

SpaceShipTwo was flying its first test flight for nine months when it crashed shortly after take-off near the town of Bakersfield.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic said SpaceShipTwo had experienced “a serious anomaly” after the craft separated from its launcher, an aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo landed safely.

It later emerged that the space craft was burning a new type of of rocket fuel never before used in flight, although officials said it had undergone extensive ground testing.

In a blog post on Friday, Sir Richard said everyone involved in the project was “deeply saddened”.

“All our thoughts are with the families of everyone affected by this tragic event,” he wrote.