San Francisco: Billionaire Sir Richard Branson wants to rent out his tourist spaceship to geoscientists who might want to use the plane to pursue a range of research fields, including atmospheric chemistry, climate studies, space weather, or even to carry out simple Earth imagery.
SpaceShipTwo (SS2), as the vehicle is sometimes called, will carry six fare-paying passengers just above the atmosphere to experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
Passenger flights should begin in 18 months or so; research sorties could start soon after.
The US space agency, NASA, has already chartered the rocket plane.
"It's likely we might do some science flights quite early in the programme," explained Will Pomerantz from Virgin Galactic while speaking here at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, the largest annual gathering of Earth scientists.
"NASA is certainly eager to get their flights conducted - the ones they have already purchased.”
"It may also give us some additional time to show off the reliability and the operations of the vehicle, which would give our tourism customers even more confidence.”
"I think that if they see a NASA flight has gone up and gone well, that will make them feel better about their purchase," he was quoted as saying to BBC News.
SS2 is an air-launched vehicle, designed in a way so that its seats can be removed easily and the space filled with experiment racks. The ship will have 43cm-diameter windows with high quality glass through which to point camera lenses. It will be taken aloft to about 50,000ft (15,200m) by its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo.
It is likely some groups will want to fly their experimental sensors on the plane before committing the technology to an orbiting satellite, Pomerantz added.
First Published: Wednesday, December 05, 2012, 15:30