Image: Branson in mock-up
Don Emmert  /  AFP - Getty Images file
British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, flashes thumbs-up signs as he sits in a mock-up of his suborbital spaceship. Virgin Galactic has reached a deal with a Swedish firm to look into launching flights from Kiruna, just north of the Arctic Circle.
updated 1/28/2007 8:00:43 PM ET 2007-01-29T01:00:43

Virgin Galactic on Friday signed a deal with a Swedish firm to explore the possibilities of launching commercial spaceflights from an airport in northern Sweden.

The British company owned by tycoon Richard Branson already has scheduled its first tourist flights into space from California's Mojave Airport in the 2008-2009 time frame.

It now wants to investigate launching flights from Kiruna, in Swedish Lapland, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle.

"This provides us with Europe's first obvious place for suborbital spaceflights," said Susan Newsam, spokeswoman at Virgin Galactic. An added feature would be flying into aurora borealis, the luminous display of lights seen in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

"Flying into the aurora borealis has never been done before," she said.

Under the deal, Virgin Galactic and Swedish company Spaceport will spend about two years investigating the conditions for suborbital spaceflights from Kiruna's airport. If all goes to plan, the first launches will be made from Kiruna in 2011 or 2012, said Sven Grahn, project manager for Spaceport.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 "We need to check the facilities and the weather conditions and so on, but there shouldn't be a problem," Grahn said.

Two hundred people have already made down payments on the planned suborbital flights from Kiruna, which will cost around $200,000 a head and last about two hours, including five minutes of weightlessness, he said.

Apart from the northern lights, Kiruna was chosen as a possible site because it has a long tradition of space research and is home to the Esrange launch pad for satellites.

Virgin Galactic's initial tourist flights will take off from Mojave, and later from a yet-to-be-built facility in New Mexico called Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic is one of several startup companies that plan to rocket ordinary people into space. Its goal is to ferry 500 people in its first year — roughly the same number of people who have gone up in 45 years of government-backed space travel.

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