New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, left, holds a model of a spaceship given to him by Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, right, during a news conference in 2005. Branson's space trips will launch from a base in New Mexico. ((Jeff Geissler/Associated Press))

Virgin Galactic says it is one step closer to putting paying passengers into space with the unveiling of its new spacecraft design on Wednesday.

The company, part of billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, introduced a model of the spaceship, which is to be powered by a Canadian-built engine, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Branson said the new design will allow Virgin Galactic to begin making commercial flights on a regular basis next year.

"2008 is going to be the year of the spaceship. We're excited about this, and everything it will do," he told a press conference.

SpaceShipTwo and its launch craft, WhiteKnightTwo, are based on open architecture, which means other aircraft designers will be free to work with Virgin Galactic to improve the ship. Company officials compared the design to Linux, the open-source operating system used in computers.

"Our vision of WhiteKnightTwo would be part of a much longer development program — have open architecture like Linux to allow other people to develop new vehicles and revolutionize new industrial uses of space," said Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn.

Engines for launch craft will come from Quebec

The PW308 turbofan engines for WhiteKnightTwo are being supplied by Longueuil, Que.-based Pratt & Whitney Canada. Virgin Galactic has ordered five SpaceShipTwo aircraft with options for at least seven WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, Pratt & Whitney said in a release.

The WhiteKnightTwo will take off like an airplane, with the manned SpaceShipTwo attached underneath, then launch its load into suborbital space from about 15,000 metres. The first flight of the WhiteKnightTwo is planned for 2008, Pratt & Whitney said.

SpaceShipTwo is about 60 per cent completed and will have test flights later this year, Virgin Galactic said.

Virgin Galactic has so far signed up more than 150 passengers for flights, which cost about $200,000 U.S. per person. Physicist Stephen Hawking, former soap opera star Victoria Principal and designer Philippe Starck are among those who have signed up.

The space trips will take off from a launch pad being built in New Mexico and last about two and a half hours. Passengers will experience about five minutes of weightlessness, Virgin Galactic said.