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The SpaceShipTwo is a space plane developed in a joint venture between the Virgin Group and Scaled Composites. It is designed for suborbital commercial flights, with passengers booking flights of a two and a half hour duration so that they get a chance to experience space, albeit briefly: around six minutes of weightlessness are in store for the passengers about SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic, the arm of the Virgin Group which is handling its spaceflight program, plans to roll out flights by late 2009 or early 2010.
This space plane is the descendant of the imaginatively named SpaceShipOne, an experimental craft which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. SpaceShipOne broke the ground for privately-funded spaceflight, and the company began improving on the design almost immediately, publicizing the SpaceShipTwo in 2006. As of 2008, the company was also working on plans for the SpaceShipThree, a craft with orbital capabilities.
Flights of the SpaceShipTwo, sometimes called the SpaceShip 2 or SpaceShip Two, start with the space plane locked into place in the WhiteKnightTwo, a mother ship which launches the plane. When released, the space plane moves into a suborbital flight path, essentially looping up over 62 miles (100 kilometers) to briefly dip into space before returning to Earth. This plane is not capable of orbital flight, a flight in which a spacecraft completes at least one full orbit around the Earth.
Six passengers and two pilots can be accommodated on the SpaceShipTwo. The interior of the craft reflects the Virgin Group's obsession with design, with a number of features meant to make the flight comfortable as well as novel. When SpaceShipTwo enters full service, Virgin Galactic hopes to offer several flights a week, basing the program at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Competition for tickets was fierce by 2007, with thousands of people competing for the first 200 tickets to be released, even though Virgin Galactic had not officially announced a flight schedule yet.
Basically, SpaceShipTwo is a novelty craft, although rides are quite expensive. However, the success of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo suggests that private investment in spaceflight is worth the effort, and lays the groundwork for orbital spacecraft such as the SpaceShipThree, along with craft which could potentially travel even further. Perhaps someday, people will be able to buy tickets on flights which travel beyond the Earth's orbit, allowing passengers to explore the solar system or even the galaxy.
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