Abu Dhabi: The UAE is building up its efforts to set up a spaceport at Al Ain airport to send tourists into space after inking two important deals. The UAE Space Agency and Abu Dhabi Airports, the company operating the Al Ain airport, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to facilitate the proposed spaceport.

Dr Mohammad Nasser Al Ahbabi, director-general of the UAE Space Agency, and Bryan Thompson, CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports signed the MoU, on the second day of the Global Space Congress, a three-day conference being held in Abu Dhabi.

The agency had already signed another MoU a couple of months back with Virgin Galactic, a global space tourism company of British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, a senior official told Gulf News on Wednesday.

“Our negotiations with Virgin Galactic are still going on to sign an agreement [based on the existing MoU to set up the spaceport at Al Ain Airport],” said Dr Mohammad Al Junaibi, executive director of Space Sector at the agency.

He said Virgin is still looking into the business case of the spaceport, including the potential investment strategy and operational aspects. “Spacecraft [flying from here] has to land here or somewhere else at another spaceport. It is still in the early stages. Although Richard Branson announced it [space trips] and sold 600 tickets, the concept is not [completely clear]. We are still working with them,” Al Junaibi explained.

Asked about infrastructure of the spaceport, he said: “It is something we are working on. They [Virgin] have already visited the site. They can use the existing infrastructure [of the airport]. They can also invest more and expand it into some higher standards. If it is from here, it will take time. Not only here, from anywhere else in the world, it will take time,” the official explained.

“Because they [Virgin] have to do some tests and make sure it is 100 per cent safe [to operate from here],” Al Junaibi said.

Asked about possible returns from space tourism, he said companies will not work in this sector if it is not lucrative.

As reported earlier, Virgin Galactic on February 22 blasted off a rocket plane to the edge of space with a test passenger for the first time, getting the company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists.

The WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It released the SpaceShipTwo passenger craft at an altitude of about 44,000 feet and then the spaceship was catapulted to 55 miles (89km) above Earth, Reuters reported.

The reusable SpaceShipTwo craft previously flew to an altitude of more than 82km in December 2018, marking the first US commercial human flight beyond the atmosphere since the end of America’s shuttle programme in 2011.

Branson has said he plans to be the first passenger on SpaceShipTwo’s first commercial flight in mid-2019.

More than 600 people from 58 countries, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber, have paid or put down deposits to fly on one of Virgin’s suborbital flights. Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders have been waiting over 14 years for their trip.

A 90-minute flight, which allows passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature costs $250,000 (Dh918,250).

After he founded the company in 2004, Branson’s ambitious timeline for taking customers into space suffered delays and a fatal setback when the original SpaceShipTwo crashed on a test flight in 2014 that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, according to the Reuters report.