Greatest show off Earth!

Virgin Galactic has yet to lift off from Earth but Sir Richard Branson has already come up with the ultimate space tourism psychedelic add-on! He intends launching flights from Lapland in Sweden, blasting tourists into sub-orbital space though the dazzling celestial lights of the Aurora Borealis, the greatest light show on Earth.

Adding even more magic to a truly spectacular Arctic-Space holiday package will be time spent in the famous IceHotel at Jukkasjärvi, a village not far from Kiruna, the Arctic town that’s been designated “Spaceport Sweden”.

The feasibility study for the Lapland launches has been done and many requirements are already in place. Spaceship Two will launch from Kiruna airport, 200 kms inside the Artic Circle, with flights controlled and monitored from the Esrange Space Center, 45 kilometres outside the town. After its sub-orbital flight the spacecraft will glide back to earth and land back at Kiruna.

Flights will take place during the winter months, December to March, when the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are seen at their best. It’s also a time when it’s dark enough during the day to see them.

One of Earth’s most amazing natural wonders, the Aurora Borealis consists of shimmering curtains of coloured light – green, red, violet and blue – which appear in the sky in Artic and Antarctic regions. They are kept in constant, swirling motion by the interaction of the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field. In the Antarctic this phenomenon is called the Aurora Australis.

These undulating ribbons of light may appear in the sky for hours or may simply last a few minutes, often swirling into a huge green corona before fading away. The lights usually appear between 90 and 110 kilometres above the earth. The apogee (maximum altitude) of a Virgin Galactic flight will be in excess of 109 kilometres.

Harnessing the greatest light show on Earth for his Lapland space launch program bears all the hallmarks of Branson’s marketing genius and is typical of his well-documented penchant for offering the fabulous with flair.

He recently unveiled a model of SpaceShip Two, the craft intended to carry the first tourists. It’s the first spacecraft designed specifically to carrying paying passengers and is based on Spaceship One, built by Burt Rutan, one of the world’s leading aircraft designers.

The spaceship will carry six passengers and two pilots. Another spacecraft, WhiteKnight Two, is also under production. Spaceship Two test flights will start later this year and are expected to last 12 to 18 months before Virgin Galactic commercial flights begin.

Spaceport Sweden in the frozen Arctic will provide a dramatic alternative to flights planned from Spaceport America in the hot desert of New Mexico. The first Lapland launch will likely occur in 2011 or 2012, after Virgin Galactic has established commercial operations in the US.

Esrange is a perfect fit for space tourism. It’s one of the world’s busiest civil satellite stations with more than 100 satellite contacts every day. The first rocket was fired from there in 1966, since when more than 500 research rockets have been launched and more than 550 high altitude, helium-filled scientific research balloons.

Regularly used as a proving ground for various unmanned flights into space, Esrange is equipped with all the technical equipment and scientific know-how required to monitor manned flights. Esrange CEO Dr Olle Norburg says “taking new steps into the future is natural for us”.

He’s equally confident about passenger safety and health aspects related to blasting through the highly charged particles of the Aurora Borealis. Norburg says investigations have been made into the build-up of electrical charge on the space craft and the amount of radiation passengers might receive. “Those studies say it is safe to do this.”
Apart from experiencing an ultimate high, Virgin Galactic’s Arctic tourists will also experience the ultimate in cool. The IceHotel in Jukkasjärvi is the region’s top tourist attraction. It’s constructed every winter using snow and huge blocks of ice carved from the nearby Torne River.

Work starts in October with the project completed by mid -January. This year the hotel has 91 rooms. They include 20 fabulous Art Suites, each created by a different artist chosen from more than 200 submissions.

The temperature inside the IceHotel is -5ºC. Guests get ready for bed in a warm change room, keep their shoes and thermal underwear on and then speed down corridors of packed snow to their room. Once inside they zip themselves into Arctic sleeping bags placed on a foam mattress that’s covered in reindeer skins. They may also socialize with other guests in the hotel’s Absolut Icebar where everything, including the cocktail glasses, is carved out of ice.

More than 200 people have already booked a Virgin Galactic trip into sub-orbital space. They include the first Swedish passenger for an Arctic flight. A ticket in space currently costs A$229,000. No price has yet been put on the Arctic Lights package.

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