Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson announced yesterday that he’s cut a deal with the State of New Mexico to build a commercial spaceport in Upham, New Mexico, about 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences, NM. He and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson are holding a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time and I’ll be telecommuting in. Watch this space for updates….

–Update at 1:15 Mountain–
Conference has just finished. Here are some important details:

*New Mexico’s spaceport will be financed through a combination of state funds and a new tax referendum that will be put in front of New Mexico voters, for a total of $225 million. That money will pay for new roads, runways, launch pads, other important infrastructure.

*Virgin’s current concept for the spaceport, though not finalized yet, has most of the facilities underground, partly, says VG president Will Whitehorn, to minimize environmental impact. A departing spaceship, attached to its jet plane carrier craft, would emerge from an underground hanger onto a very long runway for take off.

*100 people, called the Virgin Galactic Founders, have now paid for their $200,000 suborbital space tickets in full. That reserves them the first 100 seats on the spaceships.

*Passenger flights are due to launch in late 2008 or early 2009. Spaceport will begin construction in earnest in 2007, complete in 2009 or 2010.

*Each spaceship, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, will carry 6 passengers and two pilots (total of 8 seats) to 100+ kilometers (62 miles) in altitude for 5-6 minutes of weightlessness, depending on the precise trajectory flown.

*Passengers will stay at a resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico prior to their flights, with 3.5 days of training conducted at a facility at the spaceport.

*X Prize-winning pilot Brian Binnie will work with VG’s director of operations, Alex Tai on SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program. Whitehorn says they’ll fly 50-60 test flights out of Mojave Spaceport, where the ships will be built, before passengers will be allowed to fly.

*The State of New Mexico commissioned feasibility studies from both Futron Corporation and New Mexico State University. Both studies concluded that the state could earn far more in revenue from the spaceport than it plans to put into it.

I’m going to try to get my hands on those studies. Also on conceptual images of the spaceport that were shown at the press conference.

Popular Science has signed me up for a one-pager on this, so I can’t say much more here without scooping myself.

Big announcement from me coming soon. Watch this blog!