Collecting scientific data high in the Earth's atmosphere can be tough. But that's just the kind of challenge that greentech mogul and Virgin Group chief Richard Branson takes head on.

Or straight up. Branson has agreed to help climate researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration obtain carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas data by fitting scientific instruments on board a carrier aircraft that he hopes will one day tow and launch two spaceships filled with paying passengers.

Currently, research aircrafts can only fly at an altitude of about 25,000 feet. Branson's carrier aircraft, the WhiteKnightTwo, can soar about 50,000 feet. Partnering with Branson's Virgin Galactic will allow the NOAA to collect data at the Earth's upper stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere, reported The Register in the United Kingdom.

Branson announced the deal with the NOAA via a video message to attendees of the 59th International Astronautical Congress in Scotland this week, reported the U.K. Guardian. Branson's Virgin Galactic has built the carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which will make its first test flight in five weeks. Branson unveiled the WhiteKnightTwo in California's Mojave Desert in July.

Virgin has contracted with Scaled Composites, founded by Burt Rutan of SpaceShipOne fame, to construct its passenger spacecraft. The passenger spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, is scheduled for launch in 2009.

NOAA researchers will be able to use SpaceShipTwo for data collection as well. SpaceShipTwo would be carried by WhiteKnightTwo up to an altitude of 50,000 feet before being launched and propelled by a hybrid rocket. SpaceShipTwo would fly up to 361,000 feet before returning to home (see diagram)

Branson won't be able to charge the NOAA because the U.S. government prohibits Virgin from making money from test flights. However, the NOAA will pay for the scientific instruments on board. WhiteKnightTwo won't be fitted with the instruments until February.

Researchers will use the data they gather for atmospheric modeling, which will help them understand changes to the Earth's climate over time.

Virgin began selling tickets to ride on its spacecrafts in 2005. Each ticket costs a mere $200,000, which the company said is a bargain considering that getting a ride on a Russian spaceship, for example, could cost 100 times more.

About 250 passengers have signed up, the company said. SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers and two pilots.

In 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately built rocket for sub-orbital flight. Falcon 1, built by Space Exploration Technologies, launched into the Earth's orbit last month after three failed attempts. Space Exploration was founded by Elon Musk, chairman of Tesla Motors and a PayPal founder.

One of the failed flights carrying scientific experiments, also held the cremated remains of more than 20 people, including "Star Trek" actor James Doohan. 

Tags: greenhousegas, noaa, startrek, virgingalactic