Virgin unveils spaceship designs

( BBC ) - Virgin Galactic has released the final design of the launch system that will take fare-paying passengers into space.

It is based on the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne concept - a rocket ship that is lifted initially by a carrier plane before blasting skywards.

The Virgin system is essentially a refinement, but has been increased in size to take eight people at a time on a sub-orbital trip, starting in 2010.

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said the space business had huge potential.

"I think it's very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," he told a news conference in New York.

"If we do, I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology.

"This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."

Virgin Galactic has contracted the innovative aerospace designer Burt Rutan to build its spaceliners. The carrier - White Knight Two - is said to be very nearly complete and is expected to begin flight testing later this year.

SpaceShipTwo is about 60% complete, Virgin Galactic says.

Both vehicles are being constructed at Mr Rutan's Scaled Composites factory in California.

The spaceliner will carry two pilot astronauts and six ticketed passengers. They will fly initially from a facility called Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.

Seats cost $200,000. Virgin Galactic says more than 200 individuals have booked, and another 85,000 have registered an interest to fly. Tens of millions of dollars in deposits have already been taken, the company adds.

Sir Richard said the launch system would also be made available to industrial and research groups.

"The fact that this system will have the capability to launch small payloads and satellites at low cost is hugely important," he told the launch event at the American Museum of Natural History.

"As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the Universe."

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