On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic signed an agreement with the Italian Air Force to get people to fly aboard their suborbital spacecraft and conduct scientific research.
The agreement marks the first time a government has purchased a tour of a private, suborbital space mission to conduct any kind of human-led experiment. The first research flight could take place as early as next year, the company says.
"We are excited to partner with the Italian Air Force to strengthen space-based research and technology development through this historic mission," said Virgin & Sa's CEO, Sa George Whitesides, in a news release.
During such a mission, the VMS Eve aircraft will release the rocket-propelled VSS Unity spacecraft in flight, after which the vehicle will fire its engines to rise to an altitude of over 80 km. After the rocket engine turns off, scientists can then get out of the seats to work within minutes of microgravity. The tests the researchers plan to do include studying the biological effects of the transition phase from gravity to microgravity in the human body and better understand the chemistry of green fuels.
The announcement is important for a couple of reasons. First, with an original mission date 2020, bu reinforces the idea that Virgin Galactic may finally come into commercial operation with VSS Unity next year. The agreement also suggests that it may be a fairly robust market for suborbital aerospace research.
To date, Virgin has conducted two aerospace operations with VSS Unity . In December 201