Nasa plans to send science experiments into space aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo commercial plane.
Nasa will use SpaceShipTwo to conduct science experiements in microgravity at a sub-orbital altitude of around 350,000 feet above sea level, Virgin Galactic announced on Thursday. Nasa has signed a $4.5m (£2.85m) contract for three separate flights.
"These research flights mark an important milestone for Virgin Galactic," the company said in a statement. "Providing access to space to researchers and their experiments is viewed by Virgin Galactic as both a future mission segment and a significant business opportunity."
The craft can carry 589kg of scientific equipment and offers around four minutes of time spent in microgravity. Nasa selected the SpaceShipTwo craft under its Flight Opportunities Program, which gives money to commercial space companies through public sector contracts. The program combines the Faciliated Access to the Space environment for Technology (FAST) and Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) efforts.
SpaceShipTwo is "well-suited" to performing scientific research into atmospheric science, meterological science, heliophysics and earth and planetary science, Virgin Galactic says in promotional materials for the craft (PDF). Nasa is yet to decide on the specific experiments that will be conducted on the flights.
Other spaceships in the running for Nasa money include New Shepard, which is made by Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon's chief executive Jeff Bezos; Super Mod from Armadillo Aerospace, backed by John Carmack of computer game stalwarts ID Software; Xaero from Masten Space Systems, which is backed by Joel Scotkin of financial software specialists Random Walk Computing; and Lynx from XCOR Aerospace.