London, Dec 14 (ANI): Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo is set to take its first flight in the next two weeks, and could become the first privately owned vehicle to carry tourists to the edge of space.
According to a report in New Scientist, the high-altitude plane is designed to loft an eight-passenger craft called SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 15 kilometres.
There, the spaceship will detach from WhiteKnightTwo and fire a rocket to take passengers some 100 km above the Earth, where they will experience several minutes of zero gravity.
The pair are scaled-up versions of a carrier plane and spaceship that won the 10 million dollars Ansari X prize for private space flight in 2004.
Since WhiteKnightTwo's unveiling in July, the plane has passed engine and runway tests and taken small hops off the ground.
The vehicle, which was developed at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, is now ready to take off, says Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn.
"The first flight test will happen very quietly, as these things tend to do, but it will be before Christmas," Whitehorn told New Scientist.
Piloting WhiteKnightTwo may take some finesse.
The plane is comparable in size to Boeing's B-29 Superfortress, a heavy, long-range bomber that flew during World War II.
The craft has two fuselages, each with a cabin, that are connected by a 42-metre-long wing capable of holding 17 tonnes of weight.
"The configuration makes a lot of sense" for carrying heavy payloads, said MIT aeronautical engineer John Hansman.
If WhiteKnightTwo's test flights go well, the firm plans to begin carrying SpaceShipTwo into the air in mid-2009.
In its first solo flights, SpaceShipTwo will gently glide back to Earth without firing its rockets, slowly exploring its ability to reach suborbital space.
To ensure safety, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo may require 100 to 200 test flights before the pair are ready to accept passengers, according to Whitehorn.
This testing regime should still put the firm on track to take its first passengers to the edge of space as early as 2010, he added. (ANI)