Save Your Miles! Virgin Airlines Offers Top Flier Free Trip to Space

How's this for a frequent flier perk? Virgin is offering its top flier a free trip to space.

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With most frequent flier programs, participants get free flights, access to airport lounges, and free upgrades on their rental cars. But Virgin Airlines just announced that whoever accumulates the most frequent flier points over the next year will get a free trip to space.

Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic, which has been planning sub-orbital flights to space since 2004, appears to be ready to start taking space tourists just outside of Earth's atmosphere.

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From now until August 7, 2013, Virgin is offering frequent fliers the chance to upgrade to "Galactic" status. Whoever accumulates the most points by that date will win a free flight aboard the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane. The second-place winner will get a free zero-gravity flight aboard a modified airplane here on Earth.

More than 500 people have placed deposits for the $200,000 trip aboard SpaceShipTwo since 2005. Although Virgin has successfully tested the vehicle, it still hasn't flown any tourists to space.

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The SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers, and it's launched midair from another "carrier" airplane. The Federal Aviation Administration has given the company the go-ahead to test SpaceShipTwo in "powered flight" by the end of the year. It has already successfully completed "gliding" tests.

Virgin isn't the only company working on sub-orbital flights. Virginia-based Space Adventures has been planning hour-long trips to 62 miles above the earth's surface at a price of just over $100,000.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com