Virgin Galactic Strikes Deal with Swedish Government

PARIS--The Swedish government on Jan. 26 announced anagreement with suborbital space-tourism company Virgin Galactic that Swedishofficials believe will lead to midsummer and mid-winter flights of Virgin'sSpaceshipTwo vehicle to observe the Aurora Borealis from Sweden.

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

Olle Norberg, head of the Swedish Space Corp. Esrange launchsite in Kiruna, said the memorandum of understanding signed with Virgin Galacticcalls for Swedish authorities to prepare a regulatory regime modeled on whatthe U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is doing in the United States.

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

As a demonstration of its interest, Esrange authorities haveproposed 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 theirwindows aboard SpaceshipTwo, and it will give SpaceshipTwo designer Burt Rutanand his company, Scaled Composites, a sense of what effect, if any, theNorthern Lights might have on both the passengers and the electronics gearcarried by SpaceshipTwo.

"Apparently this has never been done before, to flythrough the Aurora Borealis," Norberg said. "We have images fromabove and below, but we have never taken pictures from within."

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said thecompany remains on track to complete prototypes of SpaceshipTwo in December,with test flights in New Mexico to begin in 2008 and continue until full FAAcertification is received.

Whitehorn said the Kiruna site is the first agreement onSpaceshipTwo flights signed outside the United States. The company's U.S.operations are based in New Mexico.

Site "perfect" for Virgin

Whitehorn said an existing 5,000-square-meter hangar at theEsrange facility "is perfect for us," and that no capital investmentis expected of Sweden. He said he was surprised to learn that even mid-winterflights from Esrange will not require SpaceshipTwo to be equipped with de-icinggear because the air is dry enough to prevent ice buildup on the aircraft.

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.

"We have great confidence in the work that VirginGalactic and Scaled Composites is doing, so we feel this is the time for ourspaceport," Norberg said.

Norberg said the partnership with Virgin Galactic will allowSpaceport Sweden supporters to work with the suborbital spaceflight firm totackle the myriad of details required to 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."

Sweden's space craze

Norberg told SPACE.com that the public interest inhuman 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 Agencyon the STS-116 crew and performed three of the mission's fourspacewalks [ image].

"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 reallypeaking, and we'll be able to use that kind of atmosphere."

Fuglesang received a hero's welcome this week afterreturning to Sweden, where he is expected to dine with King Carl XVI Gustaf andQueen Silvia tonight.

"So people are really fascinated by spaceflight,"Norberg said.

SPACE.com staff writer Tariq Malik contributed to thisreport from New York City.

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