Virgin Galactic agrees to launch space flights from Italy

U.S. space venture Virgin Galactic announced it has partnered with two aerospace companies to help bring commercial space launches to Italy.

The agreement with Italy’s largest private space company SITAEL, and ALTEC, a public-private company owned by the Italian Space Agency and Thales Alenia Space, has been two years in the making.

The idea is to put Virgin Galactic’s space vehicle system at the future Grottaglie Spaceport where it can be used by private individuals who want to experience space, as well as customers like the Italian Space Agency interested in conducting research.

Earlier this year, Italian aviation authority ENAC designated the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport as the future home for horizontally launched spaceflights in Italy.

While this Italian spaceport will eventually provide the infrastructure for future Virgin Galactic suborbital flights, the company will maintain its operational headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“This partnership could see Virgin Galactic launch the first person in history into space from Italian soil — and in fact from any European territory,” Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson said in a statement. 

Virgin Galactic is owned by the Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS. There are two sister companies as well, Virgin Orbit, which focuses on launching small satellites into space using its LauncherOne orbital launch, and its manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company.

Virgin Galactic is testing the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, a reusable space launch system that does horizontal launches. SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, are manufactured and tested in Mojave, Calif. by The Spaceship Company. Here’s how it works: The WhiteKnightTwo carries the VSS Unity to a high altitude and then it is dropped. The VSS Unity then fires its engines and launches into suborbital space before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere after customers have experienced a few minutes of weightlessness.

In the past several months, Virgin Galactic has had two successful test flights of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket-powered passenger spacecraft that may someday take tourists to the edge of space. In April, Virgin Galactic conducted its first test of its rocket-powered spacecraft since the fatal breakup of the company’s previous SpaceShipTwo-class spacecraft, Enterprise, in 2014.

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