Virgin Galactic signs agreement with FAA for suborbital flights

Virgin Galactic, the private space venture funded by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, has signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spelling out how the company would use US airspace during its planned suborbital flights, AP reported.

According to Virgin Galactic officials they hoped to start commercial flights aboard SpaceShipTwo out of New Mexico's Spaceport America by 2014 end.

The deal, Thursday, outlined how Branson's company would work with the FAA's air traffic control centre in Albuquerque and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to safely provide clear airspace for SpaceShip Two space plane.

SpaceShipTwo would take aboard six passengers who would fly at an altitude over 328,000 feet (100 kilometers), the point where astronaut wings are awarded.

According to the CEO of the company, George Whitesides, the new agreement brought Virgin Galactic "another step closer" to its goal of starting routine and affordable space launches from Spaceport America.

According to Virgin Galactic officials, they already had agreements in place with Edwards Air Force Base and the FAA's Joshua air traffic control center to cover their test flights in California.

SpaceShipTwo, capable of seating two pilots and six passengers, is designed to be carried by a mothership plane called WhiteKnightTwo. After the linked vehicles reach an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), the spaceship would be released and its rocket engine would kick in, launching it into suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic, co-owned by Richard Branson and Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, also had agreements with the US state of California to allow test flights, BBC reported.

Meanwhile  in a separate development Thursday, the FAA found that Virgin Galactic rival SpaceX's plans to build a spaceport in Texas would not have adverse consequences on the environment.

SpaceX had proposed 12 rocket launches per year from a site near Brownsville in southern Texas, but had not promised to build there just yet.

US regulators found that apart from the noise from the proposed site for residents of a nearby neighbourhood and alteration of landscape, most other environmental impacts could be mitigated.

The firm, founded by serial entrepreneur and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, was set to unveil the latest model of its Dragon ship, designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.