Virgin Galactic signs spaceflight deal with US authority

WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo, sits on display outside the hangar facility at Spaceport America, northeast of Truth Or Consequences, on October 17, 2011 in New Mexico Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico, is the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport

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Virgin Galactic has signed a deal with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which will allow it to charter space flights from its base in the US state of New Mexico.

The agreement lays out rules for how the flights will be integrated into US air space.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic said the deal brings it "another step closer" to commercial space flights.

The firm hopes to launch its first flight by the end of 2014.

Up in the air

SpaceX Dragon launch

There are several firms competing in the commercial space business. Here are a handful that are working on launching people into space, and the expected date of their first flight:

  • Virgin Galactic - late 2014
  • XCOR Aerospace - within the next two years (2015/2016)
  • Boeing Crew Space - 2015
  • SpaceX - no launch date
  • Bigelow Space - focused on space stations

The agreement with US authorities outlines how the FAA's air traffic control centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the state's Spaceport Authority, will work with Virgin Galactic to make sure there is safe airspace for Virgin Galactic's space plane, the SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic, which is co-owned by Richard Branson and Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, also has agreements with the US state of California to allow test flights.

Safe for birds

In a separate development on Thursday, the FAA found that Virgin Galactic rival SpaceX's plans to build a spaceport in Texas would not have adverse consequences on the environment.

SpaceX has proposed launching 12 rockets per year from a site near Brownsville in southern Texas, but has not promised to build there just yet.

US regulators found that while the proposed site would create noise for residents of a nearby neighbourhood and alter the landscape, most other environmental impacts could be mitigated.

The firm, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, is set to unveil the latest model of its Dragon ship, which is designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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