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High-flying Brit entrepreneur Richard Branson today announced the imminent take-off of the "VSS Enterprise" - a scaled-up version of Burt Rutan's SpacShipOne - which will offer well-to-do wannabe astronauts the chance of zero-grav flights for a mere £100,000.

The Virgin boss has signed a £14m, 15-year licensing deal with Mojave Aerospace Ventures - the outfit financed by MS co-founder Paul Allen - to build five Rutan-designed vehicles. The lads' SpaceShipOne has already ascended to 100km and is front-runner to claim the $10m X-Prize for the first private spaceship to reach said altitude twice within a two-week period.

Branson reckons there are around 3,000 people world-wide who would be prepared to stump up the cash for a three-hour flight. He hopes that the revenue generated from the intial flights will drive down the price and allow the hoi-polloi to hop aboard.

And Branson's lofty ambitions don't end there. Unveiling his plan at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London today, he told reporters: "If it is a success, we want to move into orbital flights and then, possibly, even get a hotel up there."

The first VSS Enterprise is slated for blast-off from the Mojave desert in 2007. Branson hopes to open further launch sites in Florida, Australia and Singapore and will invest $100m in ground infrastructure. ®

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Rutan bagsies 'shotgun' in SpaceShipOne
X-prize race hots up
SpaceShipOne triumphs

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