Rob Woodburn reports on Virgin's plans to send tourists into space from the Arctic.

Virgin Galactic has yet to lift off from Earth but Richard Branson has already come up with the ultimate space-tourism psychedelic add-on. The British entrepreneur intends launching flights from Lapland in Arctic 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 this truly cool space holiday package, Galactic passengers will stay at the famous IceHotel at Jukkasjarvi, 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 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, with flights controlled and monitored from the Esrange Space Centre, 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 Arctic 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 last only 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 more than 109 kilometres.

Harnessing the greatest light show on Earth for his Lapland space program bears all the hallmarks of Branson's marketing skill. It's typical of his well-documented penchant for offering the fabulous with flair.

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

The craft will carry six passengers and two pilots into sub-orbital space. Another spaceship called WhiteKnight Two is also being produced. Spaceship Two test flights will begin later this year. They are expected to run for 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 take place 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 daily. The first rocket was fired from there in 1966. Since then 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 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 there have been investigations into the build-up of electrical charge on the spacecraft and the amount of radiation passengers might receive, saying "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 Jukkasjarvi is the region's main tourist attraction. It is built every winter using snow and huge blocks of ice carved from the nearby Torne River.

Work on the project runs from October to mid-January. This year the hotel has 91 rooms. They include 20 fabulous art suites, each created by an artist chosen from more than 200 submissions. The temperature inside the IceHotel is minus-five degrees. Guests get ready for bed in a warm change room, keep their shoes and thermal underwear on and then rush 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 socialise 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 costs $229,000. There is no price yet for the Arctic Lights package.


Getting there: SAS flies from Bangkok to Stockholm. From Australia it code shares with Thai Airways. There are daily flights from Stockholm to Kiruna. Flight time is about 90 minutes. A train journey between the two cities takes 17 hours.

More information: Want to know more about travel to Sweden? Contact MyPlanet Australia, Level 7, 189 Kent Street, Sydney. NSW 2000, phone (02) 9020 5800, fax (02) 9010 5899, email: syd@myplanetustralia.com.au