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Virgin Galactic to save planet from climate change

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One trouble with conducting global atmospheric research is the distinct lack of flashy suborbital rocketplanes available.

Fortunately, the tender heart of space tourism venture Virgin Galactic is easily wrung by such complications. The company said today it plans to join up with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to carry scientific kit on-board during its test-flight phase to help gather data on climate change.

Current research aircraft available to the NOAA are limited to an altitude of about 25,000ft (7,600m). Finding a ride able to fly above that height can be a difficult task.

Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, plans to fling its passenger rocketplanes at an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet (15,151m). The carrier aircraft that will tow Virgin's SpaceShipTwo crafts to that height is expected to make its first test flights in the coming weeks.

The NOAA reckons teaming with Virgin will provide regular access over the next year-and-a-half to Earth's upper stratosphere, mesosphere, and lower thermosphere — relatively understudied regions of critical importance to climate science and modeling.

"We need data and observations to understand how our climate changes," said NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher in a statement. "This affords us a new and unique opportunity to gather samples and measurements at much higher altitudes than we can usually achieve."

Under the agreement, work conducted during the vehicles' test flight program will be done on a no-exchange of funds basis.

The first instruments planned to fly on-board will provide data on atmospheric composition — with an emphasis on the presence of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The data will also provide data to help calibrate satellite-based atmospheric measurements.

"To my mind there is no greater or more immediate challenge than that posed by climate change," said Virgin Galactic founder, Richard Branson. "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."

Virgin said that in the years ahead, it plans to work other science agencies around the globe to use SpaceShipTwo and its carrier craft as a platform for research and technology demonstration missions. ®

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