September 30, 2008

Virgin Will Assist Climate Experiment During Space Tours

Virgin Galactic will join up with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to look at carrying scientific instruments on board one of its space tourism vehicles to gather data on climate change.

The first instrument would provide data on atmospheric composition - particularly greenhouse gases.

So far, 280 customers have already reserved seats for sub-orbital space flights aboard the vehicles, the company said.

Virgin aims to be the world's first "spaceline", taking passengers to a maximum altitude of 68 miles (110km) on its SpaceShipTwo manned vehicle.

The boundary of space is generally accepted to be about 62 miles (100km) above the surface of the Earth.

"To my mind there is no greater or more immediate challenge than that posed by climate change," said Virgin Owner Richard Branson.

"It's therefore more than fitting that the very first science to be conducted on board our new vehicles may be specifically directed at increasing our understanding and knowledge of the atmosphere and from there, to better inform our decisions as to the most effective ways of dealing with climate change."

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said almost everything NOAA does at the moment is at 25,000ft (7,600m) maximum altitude. "It's quite difficult to find research aircraft that do atmospheric testing above that."

"One of the things that we as an airline operator know is that the tropopause is rising slightly. That has had quite an effect on aircraft flying in the upper atmosphere and the amount of turbulence they get.

"This is probably related to the mix of greenhouse gases and the levels they are rising to that's moving the tropopause up," Whitehorn said at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Glasgow.

SpaceShipTwo will be carried to about 50,000ft (15,200m) by its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo. The spaceship then ignites a rocket engine and completes the rest of the journey on its own power.

Passengers aboard the ship will experience seeing the curvature of the Earth and can get out of their seats during the ensuing period of weightlessness.

During re-entry, the vehicle changes its wing configuration for improved aerodynamics.

Tickets will cost $200,000 (£100,000) and the company has already received $35m in deposits.

NOAA is interested in flying atmospheric monitoring instruments on WhiteKnightTwo, because the carrier vehicle will be in regular flight above 50,000ft for the next year-and-a-half during its test-flight period.

WhiteKnightTwo has nearly completed its ground testing and will soon carry out runway tests. It is expected to make its first test flight in the coming weeks.

Three instruments will be carried on board the ship. One is going to measure CO2 and methane in the atmosphere.

The second will take "flask samples", allowing it to test for a much wider range of gases. These samples will be offloaded from the aircraft and taken to NOAA's laboratories in Boulder, Colorado.

The third experiment will carry a tube sample, which empties of gases on the way up to high altitude and fills up on the way down.

When SpaceShipTwo begins flying, it can provide NOAA with regular sampling of gases through the outermost region of the atmosphere - known as the ionosphere - up to 110km above Earth, Whitehorn said.

It would assist researchers calibrating data from a major satellite mission called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which is designed to measure atmospheric carbon. The joint NOAA-US space agency (NASA) mission is due to launch next year.

Whitehorn said the early part of the agreement between Virgin Galactic and NOAA is on a "no exchange of funds" basis, because it was currently classified as an experimental program.

SpaceShipTwo is currently 60% complete and Virgin plans to unveil the finished craft next summer.


Image 1: Concept of SpaceShipTwo above the earth (Virgin Galactic)

Image 2: WhiteKnightTwo carrying SpaceShipTwo (Virgin Galactic)


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