Virgin Galactic announce world-first research flight with Italian Air Force

Virgin Galactic has announced a new contract with the Italian Air Force for a research flight on the company’s SpaceShipTwo system, during which Italian researchers will actively conduct experiments while they are in space.

This is the first time a government department has funded a human-tended research flight on a commercial space vehicle. The mission is planned to take place as early as 2020 and will fly three Italian payload specialists as well as a rack of research payloads. The Italian Air Force payload specialists and Virgin Galactic’s payload team are working with the Italian National Research Centre on the design of the experimental payloads.

Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides said: “We’re delighted to work with the Italian Air Force to further space-based research and technology development through this historic mission. The experiments they plan to test on SpaceShipTwo will expand our understanding of space science, and the researchers’ active participation will demonstrate an important new avenue for space research. We are proud that Virgin Galactic is able to provide frequent access to space for this important work.”

During the research spaceflight, following the shutdown of the rocket motor, researchers will be able to unclip from their seats and undertake the actions necessary to complete each experiment during several minutes of zero gravity. Virgin Galactic will train these researchers so they are ready to carry out their jobs as mission specialists on flights – they’ll also provide onsite pre-flight support for each of the payload experiments.

The payload will include medical instrumentation that will measure the biological effects of the transitional phase from gravity to microgravity on the human body. Other testing equipment may be used to help develop a new understanding of the chemistry of green fuels.

Maurizio Greganti, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Italy in DC, said: “The agreement between the Italian Air Force and Virgin Galactic is the result of the cooperation with the relevant Italian and US space institutions which has been ongoing for a very long time. For the first time an Italian Government institution is acquiring a private suborbital flight. We are delighted with this level of cooperation which is a further confirmation of the strength and potential of the relations between our two countries, which expand to cutting-edge space technology.”

Gen Stefano Cont, Italy’s Defence and Defence Cooperation Attachè added: “The Italian Air Force has, in its DNA, a strong commitment to technological innovation. The skills and contributions of the Air Force, when combined with those of other national institutions are helping to maintain Italian leadership in the aerospace domain. Our interest in this program ties directly to the Air Force main mission, which is at its core national airspace defence.”

SpaceShipTwo is designed to fly both humans and payloads to space for tourism and research purposes. Virgin Galactic offers an end-to-end solution for payload flights that includes the use of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft VMS Eve – as well as all the hardware, processes and facilities needed for a successful campaign. They’ve already flown payloads to space through the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

Human-tended research onboard SpaceShipTwo allows researchers to engage with their experiments, responding to developments in real time and optimising the effectiveness of the research. Virgin Galactic will be able to provide these benefits to the research community with repeatability, affordability and quality of microgravity which have been previously unavailable in human spaceflight.

Richard Branson recently shared an update on the progress of Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships. Visit Virgin Galactic to find out more.

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