Space tourism is coming to the Middle East, as Abu Dhabi-based Aabar investments announced today it has taken a $280 million, 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic. As part of the deal, which is still pending regulatory approval, Aabar plans to build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and will have rights to all Virgin Galactic traffic in that region. Aabar is also setting aside $100 million to build a small satellite launching facility, suggesting that the team plans to use the spaceport as a base for scientific research as well as space tourism.
Virgin Galactic was previously wholly owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, which established the space tourism company in 2004 to develop sub-orbital spacecraft with partner Scaled Composites. In the same year, Virgin's SpaceShipOne made history by completing three successful manned spaceflights. Virgin Galactic is now testing its new carrier ship, the VMS Eve, and will begin testing its new spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, before the end of the year.
Neither company said when they expect the Abu Dhabi spaceport to be operational, nor did Virgin confirm when it expects to launch its first commercial flight, though it is confirmed that the initial space tourism flights will still take place from Virgin's Mojave Spaceport in California as planned. What is certain, according to Virgin, is that the cash infusion will fully fund the company until it commences commercial operations, removing at least one item from a long list of things that could go wrong.