Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo Targets July

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Scaled Composites' 100-percent carbon composite WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft designed to eventually haul SpaceShipTwo and its first sampling of some 254 people who have already deposited cash to be hurtled toward space, is expected to make its debut late next month (July) in Mojave, Calif.. The rollout will mark a milestone step toward seeing suborbital space tourism take flight. Backed by billionaire British entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's goal is to sell out its first year of available flights before the first one leaves the ground. With a first flight date yet to be determined, Virgin Galactic nonetheless hopes to reserve more than 500 tickets before that unannounced date. So far 254 people have won spots on the short list by paying between $20,000 and $200,000 up front, filling the ventures coffers with about $36 million. WhiteKnightTwo will begin extensive testing after rollout, including trips to the limits of its operational ceiling.

As any mother will tell you, it's always good to have a "plan B" and the unique capabilities of WhiteKnightTwo may make it appealing beyond the space tourism market. Aside from serving as a zero-G trainer for space tourists in training, it may also serve as a high-altitude launch platform. And may be tasked to lob microsatellites into low earth orbit. As a heavy-hauler it may also be asked to combat wild fires. Note that the manufacturer's 100-percent carbon composite claim excludes landing gear and engine parts, but covers just about everything else right down to carbon composite control wires -- a patented aviation first for Scaled.