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FAA: All systems GO for Virgin Galactic space plane to launch from US

As soon as it can get the thing into space, that is

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Beardy Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is one step closer to opening its cabin doors for business, having secured authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch its rocket plane from US soil.

The Virgin mogul's space tourism outfit announced on Thursday that it has reached an agreement with the FAA that spells out how the agency will provide clear airspace for Virgin Galactic's space missions.

The company will work with the FAA's Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to coordinate its commercial flights, which it plans to launch from Spaceport America, located in the New Mexico desert.

In addition, Virgin Galactic has secured agreements with the FAA's Joshua Control Facility and Edwards Air Force Base to continue its tests in California.

"As a whole, these agreements provide coverage for the company's airspace needs through the remainder of the test flight program in California and into commercial service in New Mexico," the company said in a canned statement.

The announcement was made mere hours before Elon Musk's SpaceX, Branson's main rival in the commercial space race, unveiled its new Dragon V2 spacecraft at an event in Hawthorne, California.

Branson says his outfit plans to start launching well-heeled passengers into space by the end of this year, and that more than 600 people have plonked down $250,000 apiece for the privilege – including Mark Zuckerberg nemeses Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who paid in Bitcoin.

On top of the fee, each passenger will have to undergo some medical checks and complete a three-day training course before boarding Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

It's a bit early for them to start queuing up just yet, though. SpaceShipTwo is still undergoing testing, and has so far only flown a handful of missions, each taking it a little bit further up into Earth's atmosphere.

The most recent such test, conducted in January, saw it reach a maximum height of 71,000 feet – which, while fairly impressive by ordinary aviation standards, is still almost 200,000 feet shy of what the US Air Force considers "space". ®

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