Virgin space companies sign new agreements with Italy

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit announced a set of agreements July 6 with Italian companies and the Italian Space Agency that could lead to suborbital and orbital launches from a proposed Italian spaceport.

Under one “framework agreement” signed by Virgin Galactic and Italian companies Altec and Sitael, the companies will continue planning for potential flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo from the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport in the southern part of Italy.

That agreement, if carried out as proposed, calls for The Spaceship Company, the sister company of Virgin Galactic, to build a “dedicated space system” that includes a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle that would operate out of the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport for tourism and research flights.

“This partnership could see Virgin Galactic launch the first person in history into space from Italian soil — and in fact from any European territory,” Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, said in a statement. “Together, we will help to expand opportunities for science, industry and the millions of people who dream of experiencing space for themselves.”

The new agreement builds upon earlier ones between Virgin Galactic and Italian organizations. In 2016 Altec, a joint venture of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and Thales Alenia Space, signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Galactic about performing flights from Italy. Virgin subsequently obtained a technical assistance agreement from the U.S. State Department to allow for detailed discussions about those operations.

Last December, Virgin Galactic announced a separate letter of intent with ASI to perform a dedicated SpaceShipTwo research flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico in 2019. The agreement included training of the Italian payload specialist who would fly on the mission.

ASI said July 6 that it signed a “joint declaration” with Virgin Galactic about future suborbital research flights using SpaceShipTwo that could be flown from Italy. The agency said its first research flight would still take place from New Mexico and is now scheduled for no earlier than September 2019.

“Our participation in this exciting operation is the clear signal that Italy is at the forefront of a new space economy that is changing our future and makes space accessible to more investors,” said Roberto Battiston, president of ASI, in an agency statement.

In a separate agreement, Virgin Orbit, the smallsat launch company, announced an agreement with Sitael for “extensive collaboration” between the two firms. The companies previously signed a contract for the launch of Sitael’s μHETsat satellite on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

The new memorandum of understanding between Virgin Orbit and Sitael includes “multiple orbital launches and investment into future launch system evolution,” but the companies did not disclose details. The agreement would also support LauncherOne missions flown from Taranto-Grottaglie Airport.

“The possibility to operate orbital launches from Puglia is a good opportunity for Sitael as well as for the whole European and Italian space industry, both in terms of time to market and cost efficiency,” said Vito Pertosa, founder of Sitael’s parent company, Angel Group, in a statement.

None of the agreements provided any schedules for beginning suborbital or orbital launches from Italy, and also lacked details on financing or when the agreements would be converted into firm contracts.

The agreements, though, signal additional support for carrying out space operations from Taranto-Grottaglie Airport. In May, the Italian Ministry of Infrastructures and Transport and its civil aviation authority, known as ENAC, formally designated the airport as the country’s first spaceport. The airport, with a main runway 3,200 meters long, is currently used for general aviation, including cargo flights. The airport is also the site of a Leonardo Aerostructures factory that builds components for the Boeing 787 airliner.