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U.S. grounds Virgin Galactic flights pending probe

Virgin Galactic has been grounded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The move comes as regulators investigate a 'mishap' that occurred during Sir Richard Branson's debut passenger trip to space.

The FAA confirmed on Wednesday it was investigating a deviation in the descent of the July flight known as Unity 22.

In a statement, the agency said, quote:

"SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America."

"Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report.."

Virgin Galactic said in response it was addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent it from happening again.

The company has admitted the vehicle dropped below the altitude of the airspace for a short period.

But it described the flight as safe and successful, adding that at no point were the passengers or crew put in danger.

Branson was among six Virgin Galactic employees who took part in the July flight, soaring more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert.

He had touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism and said his company was poised to begin commercial operations next year.