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Kutcher is Branson's 500th space flyer

Richard Branson said his venture to launch paying tourists into space has landed its 500th customer, and it is none other than Ashton Kutcher.

The British billionaire made the announcement on his blog, saying he gave the actor a quick call to congratulate him.

"He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself," he wrote.

Kutcher is among dozens of Hollywood types, international entrepreneurs, scientists, space buffs and others who have made deposits to be among the first to reach the edge of the earth on Mr Branson's Virgin Galactic space line. Mr Branson has said the aim is to one day make travelling to space safe and affordable for the masses, not just those who can afford the current $200,000 (¤151,000) ticket price.

Virgin Galactic is in the final stages of its test flight programme.

The company will launch its spacecraft from Spaceport America, a specially designed terminal and runway built in a remote stretch of desert in southern New Mexico.

The company plans to begin commercial operations next year. Mr Branson said he and his children plan to be on the first commercial flight.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, congratulated Virgin Galactic yesterday for selling its 500th ticket. She said she was looking forward to "the beginning of the commercial passenger space line industry".

Virgin Galactic customers will ride in a six-seat spacecraft that looks like a small plane, with wings near the rear that sweep upward.

Once the craft and its mother ship reach a certain altitude, the smaller craft is released and its rockets are fired, pushing passengers back into their seats for the trip to suborbital space. Customers will get a two-and-a-half hour flight with about five minutes of weightlessness.