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Boffins book seats on Virgin space planes

Virgin Galactic has received its first bookings for commercial space flights which aren't from dotcom billionaires.

Beardy Branson's high orbit vanity project has attracted plenty of attention from people with more money than sense but a New Scientist report says that proper scientists will soon be hopping aboard the atmosphere-busting flights to actually do something worthwhile (maybe).

The Southwest Research Institute, which is a non-profit group 'dedicated to advancing science and engineering' based in Texas, said it had done a deal to carry two researchers on Virgin Galactic's imaginatively named SpaceShip Two which can carry six passengers over 100 kilometres above the earth's surface, high enough to experience zero gravity.

The three researchers, who have already started training for the sub-orbital flights, will carry out experiments on blood pressure, test the performance of an ultraviolet imager which could reveal secrets about objects at wavelengths blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, and play with a box of rocks to find out how low gravity asteroids behave.

Virgin says it hopes that other scientific institutes will take up the opportunity to head into space but didn't mention if it offered an academic discount to anyone with a Student's Union Card.