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Virgin spaceship to pass new milestone


A Virgin Galactic photo

LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO (AFP): The world's first private passenger spaceship will pass another milestone toward its commercial lift-off Friday, at a remote spaceport in the New Mexico desert.

Flamboyant British multi-millionaire Richard Branson will commemorate the completion of the main runway at Spaceport America, near the town of Las Cruces where the Virgin Galactic project is based.

SpaceShipTwo, which could carry paying customers into suborbital space by early 2012, had its maiden flight in the California desert in March.

Today, the aircraft -- re-Christened the VSS Enterprise -- will stage a fly-pass high above the new two-mile (3.2-kilometre) long, 200-foot (60-metre) wide runway in tandem with its mothership, known as WhiteKightTwo or Eve.

"The completion of the runway at Spaceport America (is) a major milestone in the construction of the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport," it said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic, which aims to become the world's first company to promote space tourism, has already collected USD 45 million in deposits from more than 340 people who have reserved seats aboard the six-person craft.

Virgin started taking deposits from people wanting to become astronauts in 2005, and the project is 18 months away from carrying people into space, Branson told a business conference in Malaysia last month.

Fares start at USD 200,000, with refundable deposits from USD 20,000.

WK2 will carry SpaceshipTwo to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (16 kilometres) before dropping the smaller spaceship and allowing it to fire up its rocket motor to blast up to the brink of space.

Once it has reached suborbital space, SpaceShipTwo passengers will be able to view the Earth from portholes next to their seats, or unbuckle their seat-belts and float in zero gravity.

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