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Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin companies, at right, during a news conference in 2006 with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Branson's Virgin Galactic hopes to offer flights in Sweden capable of viewing aurora borealis. ((Jeff Geissler/Associated Press))

Virgin Galactic and a Swedish firm signed a deal on Friday to investigate a potential launch site for commercial space flights that would provide a view of the northern lights.

The British space tourism company owned by billionaire Richard Branson has already scheduled flights from the U.S. in 2008.

Virgin Galactic hopes to launch flights from Kiruna Airport— one of the nation's northernmost airstrips. As part of its partnership with Virgin Galactic, Swedish company Spaceport will investigate the airport's potential as a launch and landing site. If it proves suitable the first launches will occur in 2011 or 2012, a Spaceport official said.

The site was chosen because of its proximity to the northern lights and its previous use as a launching pad for satellites.

"This provides us with Europe's first obvious place for suborbital space flights," said Susan Newsam, spokeswoman at Virgin Galactic, who adds that "flying into the aurora borealis has never been done before."

The company said last year they would be conducting research into the safety of such a flight.

Scientists have little information on how the storms that produce the northern lights affect spacecraft. A joint NASA-Canadian Space Agency THEMIS project will launch five satellites into space in February to monitor the northern lights, the visual display of energy discharges created when charged particles expelled by the sun interact with Earth's magnetic field.

Virgin Galactic is one of several companies — along with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin — hoping to turn space tourism from flight of fancy into a budding industry.

Branson bought the rights to develop a fleet of spaceships capable of suborbital flight based on the design of SpaceShipOne, the first commercially built ship to make two flights at a height of 100 km above the Earth.

But the cost of flying on a two-hour tour on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spacecraft remains too pricey for all but the wealthiest travellers.

A two-hour flight would cost about $200,000 US, according to Steven Grahn, project manager for Spaceport. But Grahn said 200 people have already made down payments for the suborbital flights.

Suborbital flight requires much less energy than the orbital flights undertaken by NASA's space shuttles and Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. The International Space Station, for example, orbits at a distance ofover 350km from the Earth.

A group of space tourists have managed to make it deeper into space by providing funding to Russia's space agency. Former Microsoft software developer Charles Simonyi will fly to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in March of this year, becoming just the fifth non-astronautto visit the station.

With files from the Associated Press