Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo at the Mojave Air & Spaceport, California
Fri 3 Oct 2008 – Virgin Galactic, the ambitious project to take civilians to the edge of space, has signed an agreement with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to research the effects of climate change at high altitudes. Virgin is currently developing a plane, called WhiteKnightTwo, which will eventually carry the SpaceShipTwo passenger space craft to a height of about 50,000 feet (15km) before launching it. Both will be equipped with sensors and monitoring systems to measure CO2 and other GHGs as they fly through the upper atmosphere.
The Virgin Galactic vehicles will enable access to relatively understudied regions of the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly the upper stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere, where climate change scientists have been unable to get reliable data.
“Almost everything NOAA does at the moment is at a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet. It is quite difficult to find research aircraft that do atmospheric testing above that,” explained Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, at the International Astronautical Congress held in Glasgow, Scotland, this week.
Once SpaceShipTwo commences suborbital flights – currently slated for 2010, although timelines on the project have been slipping – Virgin will be able to provide NOAA with atmospheric samples at up to 110km.
“We need data and observations to understand how our climate changes,” commented Retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, NOAA Administrator. “This affords us a new and unique opportunity to gather samples and measurements at much higher altitudes than we can usually achieve.”
In a video message to the Congress, Virgin Galactic’s founder, Richard Branson, said: “To my mind, there is no greater or more immediate challenge than that posed by climate change. It’s therefore more than fitting that the very first science to be conducted on board our new vehicles may be specifically directed at increasing our understanding and knowledge of the atmosphere and from there, to better inform our decisions as to the most effective ways of dealing with climate change.”
WhiteKnightTwo was rolled out at the end of July from its hangar at Mojave, California, and is expected to make a first test flight before the end of the year. SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to be unveiled during the first half of 2009.
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