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Space tourism entrepreneurs at Virgin Galactic are poised to unveil the mothership that will launch the fabulously wealthy on ballistic arcs outside the Earth's atmosphere.

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan on Monday will host the public debut of WhiteKnightTwo at the Mojave Desert facilities of Scaled Composites, where the rocketship is being developed.

Scaled Composites first became famous by winning the Ansari X-prize in 2004 with two record-breaking flights by its re-usable manned suborbital craft, SpaceShipOne.

The mothership itself is not designed to leave the atmosphere, but will air launch the yet-to-be-finished SpaceShipTwo at an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet (15,151 meters). Once it breaks free, SpaceShipTwo will fire its rockets and take six passengers on a 2 1/2 hour ride into the Earth's thermosphere at approximately three times the speed of sound.

Although the voyage is expected to only include about five minutes of weightlessness, more than 250 space tourism hopefuls have already paid or put down deposits for the $200,000 tickets.

Currently SpaceShipTwo is about 70 per cent complete, the company estimates. Virgin Galactic has not yet set a date for when passengers will get a ride, but expects the earliest flights could be late 2009 or early 2010.

The pioneering spaceship company suffered a tragedy on July 2007, when three employees were killed and another three badly hurt when a propellant system exploded at the high desert test site.

Scaled Composites, now owned by Northrop Grumman Corp is currently appealing a $28,870 state fine for workplace violations in connection with the explosion. ®

Bootnote

The maiden voyage of SpaceShipTwo has been reserved for Branson and his family. If providence takes its proper dramatic cue, a storm of cosmic rays is expected to bombard the experimental rocket ship and give the family of four bizarre and exciting new abilities.

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