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SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, is hooked onto its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic and a pair of Italian companies today signed a framework agreement aimed at bringing Virgin Galactic’s launch system to a future spaceport in the heel of Italy’s “boot.”

The suborbital space launch system would be based at Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, which Italian public-private partners aim to turn into a spaceport.

Although the companies didn’t announce a time frame for the start of operations, one of the executives involved said in May that the spaceport “could be active as early as 2020.”

Virgin Galactic’s partners include Altec, a public-private company owned by the Italian Space Agency and Thales Alenia Space; and Sitael, Italy’s largest privately owned space company.

Today’s agreement was signed in Grottaglie by Sitael CEO Nicola Zaccheo, Altec CEO Vincenzo Giorgio and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Witnesses included the head of the Italian Space Agency, Roberto Battiston; and the Virgin Group’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson.

Taranto-Grottaglie Airport
Taranto-Grottaglie Airport is in the “heel” of Italy’s boot. (Google Maps)

“This partnership could see Virgin Galactic launch the first person in history into space from Italian soil — and in fact from any European territory,” Branson said in a news release.

The agreement calls for Virgin Galactic’s sister manufacturing venture, The Spaceship Company, to build a dedicated space vehicle system that would be positioned at the future Grottaglie Spaceport. The system would integrate technological and industrial contributions from Sitael and other Italian aerospace companies, pending regulatory approvals.

Virgin Galactic is currently conducting rocket-powered tests of its SpaceShipTwo plane, which is dropped from a WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane for midflight launch. The tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port are leading up to flights to the edge of space, and eventually to commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

More than 600 customers have reserved seats for suborbital space trips, at a cost of up to $250,000 each. If Virgin Galactic’s test program proceeds smoothly, passenger flights could begin as early as next year.

The Grottaglie operation would presumably make use of SpaceShipTwo technology, with some Italian twists added. Virgin Galactic’s agreement calls for the launch system to serve as a platform for high-frequency space research flights as well as recreational tours.

In a tweet, Whitesides said Virgin Galactic could someday offer trips on rocket ships between the spaceports in Italy and New Mexico:

In concert with the Virgin Galactic deal, executives from Virgin Orbit and Sitael signed an agreement calling for further collaboration on orbital launches and investments in future launch systems.

Virgin Orbit is gearing up for flight tests of its air-launched, two-stage LauncherOne rocket and is expected to start delivering commercial payloads to orbit by the end of the year.

Sitael already has a deal with Virgin Orbit to launch μHETsat (“Micro-Het-Sat”), a satellite that’s designed to demonstrate electric propulsion technology with backing from the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

The newly signed memorandum of understanding opens the way for Virgin Orbit and Sitael to study the feasibility of launching such satellites from Italy.

“With this agreement, Sitael reinforces its position as one of the main players of the New Space Economy,” Sitael’s Zaccheo said in a news release.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart noted that the advantages of air-launch systems “are proving to be extremely appealing to the global community of small satellite operators.”

“The opportunity to help fantastic companies like Sitael reach space on their terms and their schedule is exactly what we were created to do,” Hart said.

Italian and Virgin representatives sign agreements
Representatives from the Virgin space companies, leading Italian aerospace firms and the Italian government gather to celebrate newly signed agreements. From left: Altec CEO Vincenzo Giorgio; Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart; George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company; Michele Emiliano, governor of the Puglia Region; Barbara Lezzi, Italian minister for the South; Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group; Vito Pertosa, founder of Angel Group; Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency; and Sitael CEO Nicola Zaccheo. (Sitael Photo)
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