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Virgin Galactic plans to launch customers to space from a future Italian spaceport

The company has a new partnership with the Italian aerospace industry

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity conducts a powered test flight
Image: Virgin Galactic

Today, US space tourism venture Virgin Galactic announced a new partnership with two of Italy’s biggest aerospace companies to someday launch people into space from the European country. The plan is to eventually conduct flights of Virgin Galactic’s passenger spaceplane from Italy’s future Grottaglie Spaceport, which will be located at an airport on the heel of the country’s famous boot. If this all pans out, Virgin Galactic could be the first group to launch someone into space from Italy — or any other European territory.

Virgin Galactic’s new partners include Altec, a company owned by the Italian Space Agency, and Sitael, Italy’s largest private space company. The two partners are supposed to work with Virgin Galactic to come up with a framework for how spaceflights will be conducted from the Grottaglie Spaceport. The three companies did not provide a timeline for when these flights would occur.

Virgin Galactic says the goal is to build an entirely new spaceplane that will remain at the Grottaglie Spaceport indefinitely. Sitael and others in the Italian aerospace industry will contribute their own technology to the vehicle. And the plane will be available to customers in the region, such as the Italian Space Agency or any private citizens who want to pay to go to space. It could also be used as a platform to do science experiments in a high-altitude gravity-less environment.

Virgin CEO Richard Branson along with members of the Italian government and aerospace industry
Image: SITAEL

As of now, Virgin Galactic has only one active spaceplane, dubbed the VSS Unity, which is still undergoing tests at the company’s launch site at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The spaceplane is designed to take passengers into suborbital space, where they’ll experience a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. To get to space, the vehicle is carried to a high altitude by a large carrier aircraft, called WhiteKnightTwo. The spaceplane is then dropped from the carrier and ignites its engine, climbing high above the Earth. After a few minutes in microgravity, the plane shifts its wings to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land on a horizontal runway.

So far, Virgin Galactic has done two powered flights of the VSS Unity, as well as numerous glide flights, to ensure the vehicle is ready to carry people. However, the spaceplane has yet to go to space. Even so, the company has a long roster of people waiting to ride on VSS Unity, with hundreds of customers putting down deposits of $250,000 for a ticket. Virgin Galactic hasn’t set a date for the first passenger flights, but CEO Richard Branson said he might fly on the spaceplane as early as this year.

This isn’t the first time that Virgin Galactic has made a deal with Italy. Before today’s announcement, Virgin Galactic had already partnered with the Italian Space Agency to do a spaceflight mission for the country by the end of 2019. That flight will carry an Italian researcher and a number of science experiments, though it’s meant to take off from Mojave. Additionally, Virgin Galactic’s partner company, Virgin Orbit, also announced today that it made a deal with Siteal to do multiple satellite launches for the Italian company, as well as invest in new kinds of launch systems. Virgin Orbit is currently working on its own launch vehicle, a rocket that is deployed from the wing of plane in order to carry small satellites to orbit.

“From the Renaissance to modern space science, Italy has always been a natural home to great innovators and breakthrough ideas which have shaped the human experience,” Branson said in a statement. “I believe Italy’s vision, which has led to this collaboration with our Virgin space companies, will provide a real impetus as we strive to open space for the benefit of life on Earth.”