NASA, Virgin Galactic to develop hypersonic spacecraft

Two-year deal outlines plans to develop hybrid rocket motors and vehicles that travel at five times the speed of sound.

NASA said Wednesday it has inked a two-year agreement with space-tourism company Virgin Galactic to collaborate on future technologies for commercial spaceflight.

As part of the deal, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic will work with the scientists and facilities at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley to support its current plans for suborbital spaceflight. By 2008, Virgin Galactic, a U.S. subsidiary of Branson's Virgin Group, plans to take six passengers up to a low-Earth orbit in its SpaceShipTwo. How exactly NASA will assist in that effort is still up for discussion, according to a NASA representative.

In addition, NASA and Virgin Galactic will explore the development of technologies that go beyond Virgin's suborbital effort. Those will include hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five times the speed of sound, according to NASA.

Virgin Galactic is "really looking forward to exploring opportunities for the future and making hypersonic point-to-point travel a reality," Virgin Galactic Chief Operating Officer Alex Tai said in a statement.

NASA and Virgin Galactic signed a memorandum of understanding that stipulates neither will "pay fees or provide funds to support the areas of possible consideration."

The private-public partnership is only the latest for the government agency, which has faced cutbacks in recent years. For example, NASA Ames has teamed with everyone from Mountain View, Calif.-based Google to Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler to explore new space technologies.

"This new type of private-public partnership can benefit the agency while helping to foster a new industry," said Dan Coughlin, who works at NASA's Space Portal, a newly formed group to foster space tourism, and who forged the Virgin Galactic deal.

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