Virgin Galactic announced a contract with the Italian Air Force Wednesday to fly a science experiment tended by researchers during a flight to suborbital space on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft.
The agreement is the first time a government has contracted for such human-tended research on a commercial space vehicle, Virgin Galactic officials said.
The nascent spaceline is nearing the start of commercial passenger operations with its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which has been under development at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
“We’re delighted to work with the Italian Air Force to further space-based research and technology development through this historic mission. The experiments they plan to test on SpaceShipTwo will expand our understanding of space science, and the researchers’ active participation will demonstrate an important new avenue for space research. We are proud that Virgin Galactic is able to provide frequent access to space for this important work,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said.
The science experiment mission on board SpaceShipTwo is expected to take place as early as 2020, officials said.
It will include three Italian payload specialists tending a rack of research payloads.
During the spaceflight, following shutdown of the rocket motor, the researchers will unclip from their seats and undertake the actions necessary to complete each experiment during several minutes of zero gravity.
Virgin Galactic will provide training and preparation for the researchers to perform as mission specialists on the flight, and will provide pre-flight support for each of the payload experiments, officials said.
The payload will include medical instrumentation that will measure the biological effects of the transitional phase from gravity to micro-gravity on the human body. Other testing equipment may be used to help develop a new understanding of the chemistry of green fuels.
“The Italian Air Force has, in its DNA, a strong commitment to technological innovation. The skills and contributions of the Air Force, when combined with those of other national institutions are helping to maintain Italian leadership in the aerospace domain. Our interest in this program ties directly to the Air Force main mission, which is at its core national airspace defense,” Gen. Stefano Cont, Italian Defense and Defense Cooperation Attache, said.
SpaceShipTwo has twice flown to suborbital space but has yet to fly paying customers. During the developmental spaceflights so far, the rocket plane has carried experiments for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, but these were unattended while on board.
Following the spacecraft’s second successful spaceflight in February, the company is in the process of shifting its operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where the commercial service will be based.
Manufacturing of additional spacecraft and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft will continue in Mojave at The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm.