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Branson goes to infinity (and maybe even beyond)

24/01/2008. Contributed by Jessica Martin

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Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Starship Lines has released the design of its new spaceship based on SpaceShipOne, their craft which flew into space for the third time in October 2004 and won the $10 million X-Prize for its labours. Plans for Spaceport America were also shown to SFcrowsnest.

The construction of the White Knight Two mothership, or carrier aircraft, is now close to completion at Scaled Composites and is expected to begin flight testing in the summer of 2008.

They told, "It is the world's largest, all carbon composite aircraft; it has a unique high altitude lift capacity, capable of launching SpaceShipTwo and its eight astronauts into sub-orbital space flight. The WK2 mothership is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines which are amongst the most powerful, economic and efficient engines available. The WK2 mothership has also been designed to be capable of lifting other payload and launching it into space. Both Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic believe the system has sufficient lifting capability to launch unmanned vehicles designed to carry small satellites and other scientific payload into low earth orbit. While the first priority for Virgin Galactic is developing the market for human spaceflight, the company is already assessing the potential for unmanned launch capability."

Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic, told the Nest, "The designs of both the mothership and the new spaceship are absolutely beautiful and surpass any expectations for the future of commercial spaceflight that we had when first registering the name Virgin Galactic in 1999. Burt and his team have done a fantastic job and I am also delighted with the wonderful vision that Foster and Partners, working with URS, have shown in the final designs for Spaceport America in New Mexico. Finally, we are all very excited about the prospect of being able to develop a bio-fuel solution for the space launch system and we are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft."

SpaceShipTwo is now nearly 60% complete. It incorporates both the lessons learned from the SpaceShipOne program and the market research conducted by Virgin Galactic into the requirements future astronauts have for their space flight experience. While the two vehicles comprising the space launch system have been under construction, Virgin Galactic's cadre of future astronauts now stands at 200 individuals with around 85,000 registrations of interest to fly.

Astronaut orientation for spaceflight is, says Branson, progressing well and already 80 of SpaceShipTwo's first passengers have been through medical assessment and centrifuge training at the NASTAR facility in Philadelphia.

Commenting on the unveiling, Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites, added, "Virgin Galactic produced a demanding output specification for the world's first private human and payload space launch system. This required us to produce a safe but flexible design capable of multiple applications in new market sectors. I am confident that these vehicles, now in an advanced stage of construction, will achieve just that. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the whole team at Scaled Composites. Looking up - way up! is an expression we have shared since the X Prize began and now we are all excited that this year the dream will start to become a very tangible reality for everyone involved."

In addition to the unveil of the space launch system, a model of the final design for Spaceport America was put on public display for the first time. Situated in Sierra County, New Mexico, Spaceport America will be the world's first custom designed private spaceport. Its structure will use a combination of geo-thermal, solar and wind power to create a low carbon footprint.

Virgin Galactic is also looking at the opportunities of operating from other locations worldwide and is already investigating the feasibility of operating from Spaceport Sweden.

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