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Virgin Galactic unveils 'giant shuttlecock' space liner


Latest update : 2009-12-08

Virgin's billionaire boss Richard Branson has unveiled SpaceShip Two, the Virgin Galactic spaceship that is supposed to carry the first tourists into space and then "feather" them back to Earth, at a cost of around 200,000 dollars.

AFP - Richard Branson unveiled his Virgin Galactic spaceliner for tourists willing to pay 200,000 dollars a ticket Monday for a trip into the weightlessness of space in a craft designed to make the perilous return home "like a giant shuttlecock."

Previewing the roll-out of the Virgin Galactic craft in California's Mojave desert, the British billionaire said he planned to be on its first passenger flight in about 18 months' time with his family and the space ship's American designer Burt Rutan.

Behind him, the two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, which is to be christened Virgin Space Ship Enterprise on Monday, was suspended between what looked like two jet aircraft joined together with a common wing.

Emblazoned on the White Knight mothership was the image of a young woman representing Branson's mother Eve diving through space.

In an interview with CNN before the unveiling, Branson said future passengers will be able to float from their seats and peer at Earth through the craft's large portholes before coming back down to ground.

"What happens is that the six potential astronauts will be sitting in the central pod here, what is their spacecraft, and the White Knight will take them up to about 60,000 feet (18,288 meters).

"At 60,000 feet, they will drop away and they will then go 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) per hour in 10 seconds where they get propelled into space," he said.

"They can float around and become astronauts, and, when they are ready to come back into the earth's atmosphere again, they will put themselves back into their seats and buckle in and they will begin their voyage back into the Earth's atmosphere.

"At that stage the space ship effectively turns into a giant shuttlecock -- that would be the genius of Burt Rutan, the engineer behind it," he said.

"And so it literally feathers its way back into the Earth's atmosphere so it doesn't have the enormous heat buildup that some of the NASA spaceships have had in the past."

The mothership has completed a year of "rigorous and successful" first phase flight testing prior to the attachment of SpaceShipTwo, the company said. Another period of intensive testing will follow.

Built from carbon composite materials like the mothership, SpaceShipTwo is to be powered by a hybrid rocket motor that is still under development, Branson's company said.

In a statement, Branson said the unveiling "takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this ambitious project is not only moving rapidly, but also making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation."

Some 300 passengers are reported to have paid in advance for tickets on the spaceliner. They will be among guests invited to a VIP roll-out at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will christen the spaceliner Virgin Space Ship Enterprise.

New Mexico is building a space port in Upham, New Mexico with a 10,000-foot (three-kilometer) runway that is scheduled to be completed by mid-2010.

"That's where the space flight is going to take place from," Branson said.

SpaceShipTwo is the follow-on of SpaceShipOne, a single seat suborbital spaceplane also designed by Rutan, which won the 2004 Ansari X-Prize for the first manned private spacecraft.

A famed innovator, Rutan made aviation history in 1986 with the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.

He is the founder of Scaled Composites, LLC, an aircraft design and prototyping outfit, in Mojave, California.

Date created : 2009-12-07