Virgin Spaceships Will Fly For Science

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Virgin Galactic will partner up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to use the fleet of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles for scientific research, Virgin announced on Tuesday. "We need data and observations to understand how our climate changes," said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. "This affords us a new and unique opportunity to gather samples and measurements at much higher altitudes than we can usually achieve." NOAA and Virgin Galactic hope to fly NOAA science instruments aboard both the WhiteKnightTwo carrier vehicle, which will regularly reach altitudes up to about 50,000 feet, and SpaceShipTwo, which will soar into space. The instruments would provide data on atmospheric composition -- particularly carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases -- and would also provide a way to calibrate measurements made by satellites.

"To my mind there is no greater or more immediate challenge than that posed by climate change," said Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. "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." The Virgin Galactic fleet will provide frequent access to relatively understudied regions of the Earth's atmosphere, particularly the upper stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere. The collaboration with NOAA will help define the processes and parameters for successful science research aboard the vehicles.