Virgin Galactic has secured a contract with the Italian Air Force to support a “human tended” research flight aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.
The flight is expected to be launched as early as 2020 and will include three Italian Air Force payload specialists and a “rack of research payloads.” Once the spaceplane reaches its maximum altitude, the three specialists will unclip and complete each experiment during what is expected to be several minutes of zero gravity.
In addition to securing seats and payload capacity aboard a SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, the contract will see Virgin Galactic provide training for the three specialists and pre-flight support for each of the experiments.
Although a full breakdown of the experiments the Italian Air Force will include in the mission is not yet available, an October 2 Virgin Galactic press release did reveal some insight into the payload composition. The experiments on board will include biomonitoring systems to measure the physiological effect of microgravity on the specialists, and experiments that will provide insight into “the chemistry of green fuels.”
The mission will not be the first government-sponsored flight of SpaceShipTwo spaceplane carrying a research payload. On February 22 this year, a SpaceShipTwo carried four NASA payloads as part of the agency’s Flight Opportunities Program. The four payloads included in the mission did, however not require intervention from a specialist, as will be the case during the Italian Air Force research flight.