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Virgin Galactic Looks To The Near Future For Test Flight

February 28, 2012

Virgin Galactic, an arm of Richard Branson´s British conglomerate Virgin Group, is planning to test fly its first spacecraft beyond the Earth´s atmosphere this year, with commercial passenger service to follow within two years, company officials reported Monday.

The commercial space venture is also looking to form a partnership with Abu Dhabi as the emirate builds itself a global aerospace hub.

Virgin Galactic, 37.8 percent-owned by the Abu Dhabi government´s Aabar Investments wealth fund, would like “collaborations in operations or future technology or even education” with companies in the emirate, CEO George Whitesides said in a phone interview with Bloomberg.

Virgin Galactic may make “a number of announcements” about joint projects during the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi in April, Whitesides said, declining to specify potential partners.

Aabar´s investment in the commercial spaceflight venture stands at about $380 million, Whitesides said. The budget shows there´s no need for further funding until commercial operations begin in the second half of 2013, and the company isn´t looking to sell additional stakes, he added.

So far, nearly 500 customers have signed up for rides on SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic´s six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship being built and tested by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company based out of Mojave, California.

The suborbital flights, which cost $200,000 per seat, are designed to reach an altitude of about 68 miles, giving passengers a few minutes of zero gravity flight and a chance to view Earth against the blackness of space.

“In the suborbital area, there are a lot of things to be done. This is an area that has been essentially absent for about four decades,” Neil Armstrong told Irene Klotz of Reuters.

“There´s a lot of opportunity,” he said at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto, California on Monday. “I certainly hope that some of the new approaches will prove to be profitable and useful.”

SpaceShipTwo has so far completed 31 atmospheric test flights — 15 attached to its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, and 16 glide tests, William Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic´s vice president of special projects, said in a speech at the conference.

Preparations for the ship´s first rocket-powered flight is under way at Scaled Composites and is scheduled to take place sometime this year.

“We hope to have the rocket motor in the spaceship later this year and start powered flight testing,” Virgin Galactic chief test pilot David Mackay told the conference. “We would like to be the first to do this, but we´re not in a race with anyone. This is not a Cold War-era space race.”

“We flow pretty quickly from first powered flight to first flight to space and then it´s not terribly long from there until we have our first commercial flight to space,” Pomerantz told Reuters later Monday.

There are no exact estimates on what the suborbital spaceflight market might be worth, but Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR Aerospace, another commercial space venture, put the figure at $1 trillion.

When asked about the potential impact of a commercial suborbital industry, Armstrong said the X-15 program, which was designed to investigate the problems of high-speed, high-altitude flight and devise possible solutions, helped the US become the world´s largest aeronautical product exporter.

“We´re in an entirely new environment now, with different objectives, different participants, different goals. We can´t imagine all the opportunities that exist,” said Armstrong.

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports



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