Virgin, Swedish Spaceport Sign Deal for Suborbital Flights

by and

PARIS – The Swedish government announced an agreement with the space-tourism company Virgin Galactic Jan. 26 that Swedish officials believe will lead to midsummer and mid-winter flights of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo launch vehicle from Sweden to provide passengers an opportunity to observe the Aurora Borealis from suborbital space.

The agreement, signed at the proposed future launch site in Kiruna, Sweden, calls for no exchange of funds. Swedish officials say the Kiruna facility, already known for launching suborbital sounding rockets and atmospheric balloons, has sufficient infrastructure to accommodate Virgin Galactic and that no new investment is needed.

Olle Norberg, head of the the Esrange Space Center and Spaceport Sweden, said the memorandum of understanding signed with Virgin Galactic calls for Swedish authorities to prepare a regulatory regime modeled on what the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is doing in the United States.

Norberg said in a Jan. 26 interview that the Swedish government also will take charge of the technology-export approvals needed to export SpaceShipTwo and related hardware to Sweden during flight campaigns.

As a demonstration of its interest, Esrange authorities have proposed to launch a small sounding rocket in March 2008 into the Aurora Borealis.

Equipped with cameras, the flight would serve two purposes: It would give prospective passengers a sense of what they will view from their windows aboard SpaceShipTwo; and it will give SpaceShipTwo designer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, a sense of what effect, if any, the Northern Lights might have on both the passengers and the electronics gear carried by SpaceShipTwo.

“Apparently this has never been done before, to fly through the Aurora Borealis,” Norberg said. “We have images from above and below, but we have never taken pictures from within.”

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said the company remains on track to complete prototypes of SpaceShipTwo in December, with test flights in New Mexico to begin in 2008 and continue until full FAA certification is received. Whitehorn said the Kiruna site is the first agreement on SpaceShipTwo flights signed outside the United States. The company’s U.S. operations are based in New Mexico.

Whitehorn said an existing 5,000-square-meter hangar at the Esrange facility “is perfect for us,” and that no capital investment is expected of Sweden. He said he was surprised to learn that even mid-winter flights from Esrange will not require SpaceShipTwo to be equipped with de-icing gear because the air is dry enough to prevent ice buildup on the aircraft.

“We have great confidence in the work that Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites is doing, so we feel this is the time for our spaceport,” Norberg said.

Norberg said Sweden, which has launched rockets with U.S. motors for experiments in weightlessness for years, does not view the U.S. technology-transfer regime, known as International Traffic in Arms Regulations, to be a problem.

Norberg said the partnership with Virgin Galactic will allow Spaceport Sweden supporters to work with the suborbital spaceflight firm to tackle the myriad of details that must be attended to in order to conduct safe commercial launches.

“This is the kickoff for that,” Norberg said. “We have set a goal to be ready to fly in the year 2012.”

Norberg said public interest in human spaceflight in Sweden peaked in December with NASA’s successful STS-116 mission to the international space station. Sweden‘s first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, represented the European Space Agency on the STS-116 crew and performed three of the mission’s four spacewalks.

“It was a complete space craze here in Sweden. Christer’s flight was reported on a minute-by-minute basis,” Norberg said. “We’re in a very good movement where the people’s interest is really peaking, and we’ll be able to use that kind of atmosphere.”