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Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Monday, 28 July 2008 12:56 UK
Virgin to unveil space MotherShip
By Jim Reed
Newsbeat technology reporter

Virgin Galactic
The technical specifications of the new company's mothership have been kept under wraps ahead of the official unveiling.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is preparing to take the wraps off the vehicle that it hopes will launch tourists into Earth's atmosphere.

Guests including Arnold Schwarzenegger will be at the company's spaceport in the Mojave Desert to see WhiteKnightTwo unveiled today.

The craft, called a MotherShip, will not enter space itself but climb to a height of 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

It will then launch a second vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, into sub-orbit.

Six passengers will travel at four times the speed of sound to a height officially classified as space, experiencing around five minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to earth.

The company says that more than 250 wannabe astronauts have already put down a deposit for the two-and-a-half-hour flight.

Return tickets are expected to cost around 100,000 each.

First commercial spaceflights

Richard Branson has teamed up with the American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan to develop what both hope will be the first commercial space service.

In 2004, Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, became the first private venture to send a manned vehicle into space, winning the $10m (5m) Ansari X Prize in the process.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
Cabin of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo being put on craft
The technology behind that first craft, SpaceShipOne, has been used to develop the new MotherShip.

The process was dealt a blow last year when an explosion at the Mojave Desert test site left three workers dead and critically injured three others.

Scaled Composites is appealing a 28,000 fine for five workplace violations related to the accident which happened when engineers were testing volatile nitrous oxide fuel.

The technical specifications of the new company's mothership have been kept under wraps ahead of the official unveiling.

But it is thought the catamaran-style craft will have the same wingspan, 131 feet (40 metres), as B-29 World War II bomber.

It is expected to be named the Spirit Of Steve Fossett in memory of the American aviator and friend of Richard Branson who went missing in the Nevada desert last year and whose body has never been found.

Virgin Galactic says the passenger vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is now around 75% complete and is expected to begin test flights later this autumn with the first paying passengers likely to take off in 2009 or 2010.



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