Space giant in challenge to Virgin

Move over, Sir Richard Branson! One of the space industry’s biggest players is moving into the tourism business. EADS Astrium has announce plans to build a Space Jet that can fly thrill-seekers from any normal airport to the edge of space.

TakeoffThe ship – a rival to Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two – will look like a business jet and carry four paying passengers at a time to a height of 100km (more than 60 miles).

A trip will cost each passenger between 150,000 and 200,000 euro for a flight lasting one a half hours including three minutes of weightlessness.

The Space Jet is the brainchild of European rocket builders Astrium, who are looking for private investors. British engineers – already working on a European mission to Mars – are expected to be heavily involved in building the tourist ship.

A mock-up of the privately funded jet, including a cabin by London-based designer Marc Newson, who created interiors for Qantas, was shown for the first time in Paris last night. It has been designed in secret since the start of 2006.

Astrium’s spacecraft is much simpler than Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two which will have to be carried aloft by an specially built aircraft before separating and flying into space. Virgin will use a specially built spaceport in New Mexico but have said they would like to launch from an RAF runway in Scotland too.

WeightlessnessThe new Space Jet will take off and land conventionally from a standard airport using its jet engines. However, once the craft reaches an altitude of around seven and a half miles, a rocket engine in the tail will ignite and blast it to a height of 60 miles in seconds.

Astrium say the pilot will then control the craft using small rocket thrusters enabling passengers to float free and witness spectacular views through several portholes. The open cabin might be a little too public for any more intimate activities, however. After slowing down during descent, the jet engines will restart for a normal aircraft-style landing on a conventional runway.

An Astrium insider said: “Our engineers were inspired by Virgin’s SpaceShip One, but that will fly from a purpose-built spaceport. We will be able to fly from any standard airport. The sub-orbital experience can be enjoyed by any healthy person. The training is minimal and not physically demanding.”

He added: “We are proposing the one-stage system as it is considered the safest and most economical to operate.” Astrium hope that Virgin might become a customer for the jet.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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