Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic said it will launch its first test flight for a commercial space ship by the end of the year.
Credit: Frederic J. Brown

Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, announced this week that it expects to test fly a space shuttle this year with commercial flights to follow within the next two years.

According to, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has already performed 16 unpowered flight tests, yet the company hopes that it will test the ship with rocket power by the end of 2012.

So far, nearly 500 passengers have signed up to be the first space tourists in a six passenger rocket currently being built and tested by the aerospace company, Scaled Composites, said Reuters.

The flights cost $200,000 per person and will reach an altitude of 68 miles, giving customers a few minutes of zero gravity and a view of the Earth from space.

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According to company officials, SpaceShipTwo would be carried by a larger craft up to 50,000 feet at which point the rocket engine will carry it the rest of the way.

In a conference this week called the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC-2012), former astronaut Neil Armstrong threw his support behind the project idea, said Bloomberg.

"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," the Telegraph quoted Armstrong as saying.

According to Bloomberg, the government of Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund currently owns about 37 per cent of the $200-million project.

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