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Virgin Galactic spaceliner-piggyback craft delayed

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The "mothership" jet aboard which Richard Branson's planned space-tourism rocketplanes will ride piggyback has had its first flight delayed, according to reports. The WhiteKnight Two carrier craft had been expected to fly this month.

The WhiteKnightTwo on show to the public

The Rocketplane's reusable lower stage.

Flight International reports that the delay was announced by Will Whitehorn, president of the Virgin Galactic spaceline operation.

"The first flight trials will take place when we are ready and will definitely be this year and possibly within the next few weeks," said Whitehorn, quoted by Flight. He added that the WhiteKnight Two has already done taxiing trials.

The aircraft is a development from the original WhiteKnight which carried the famous Ansari X-prize winning SpaceShipOne on its flights into space. Virgin Galactic plans to commence trials of the SpaceShipTwo passenger-carrying rocketplanes next year.

The Virgin Galactic space-tourism fleet will operate from the new "Spaceport America" rocketport being purpose-built for it courtesy of the New Mexico state government (Virgin will lease the facility). It had originally been hoped that flights would commence in 2007, but there were long delays after a fatal rocketfuel explosion at the Mojave plant of Scaled Composites, the company building the spacecraft. Virgin now says it will start operations in 2010.

Wealthy passengers paying $200k each will enjoy a genuine trip into space complete with weightlessness. However, SpaceShipTwos and their like can't achieve orbital velocity: they merely fling themselves up out of the atmosphere ballistically before inevitably falling back in.

Real space tourism into actual orbit is on offer, in the form of visits to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz ship. But this costs roughly a hundred times more, and the ride is sometimes less than luxurious. ®

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