for National Geographic News
The Virgin Galactic company today unveiled the WhiteKnightTwo, a new class of carrier airplane that will help loft space tourists beyond Earth's atmosphere (see photos).
The first plane in the WhiteKnightTwo class was christened this morning at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. It was named EVE, in honor of Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson's mother.
The sleek, white plane is a larger version of the one that helped SpaceShipOne win the U.S.-ten-million-dollar Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first privately built craft to carry a person on three round-trip voyages to space.
WhiteKnightTwo will ferry the not-yet-unveiled SpaceShipTwo crafts, six-passenger versions of the original SpaceShipOne, up to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above Earth.
The passenger ship is then launched from the underside of WhiteKnightTwo to continue its ascent to the very edge of space—about 65 miles (104 kilometers) above Earth—under its own power. SpaceShipTwo crafts make the return trip to Earth unaided.
"The beauty of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo is that they can help change the paradigm of our relationship to space, achieving an era where space accessibility becomes a commercial and scientific norm rather than an exception," Branson said at the unveiling ceremony.
The event marks a major milestone in Virgin's quest to launch the world's first private, environmentally friendly spaceflight company, Branson added.
"The rollout of WhiteKnightTwo takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this most ambitious of projects is not only for real but is making tremendous progress toward our goal of safe commercial operation," he said.
(See pictures of the planned New Mexico spaceport that will accommodate Virgin Galactic flights.)
Designed by aerospace firm Scaled Composites, which also built its predecessor, WhiteKnightTwo is the largest carbon-composite aircraft ever made.
The twin-boom, catamaran-like design features four turbofan jets engines and a 140-foot (42.6-meter) wingspan.
Its fuel capacity will allow it to complete up to four daily spaceflights or to fly nonstop while ferrying a SpaceShipTwo vehicle between the U.S. coasts.
"We very much hope that its efficiency will herald a wake-up call to the aerospace industry and the necessity of using new materials and technologies in the future," said Burt Rutan, founder and chief technology officer for Scaled Composites.
(Read more about private space travel in Rutan's own words.)
In addition to helping give space tourists a sweeping view of the planet, WhiteKnightTwo could find other uses as a delivery system for small payloads and satellites.
"I believe the vehicle will be developed and sold for a variety of launch applications beyond the initial requirements of our launch customer, Virgin Galactic," Rutan said.
When SpaceShipTwo crafts are ready for flight in 2009, a seat aboard the space plane will cost approximately U.S. $200,000.
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