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Virgin Galactic takes on satellite launch market

Posted: July 11, 2012

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FARNBOROUGH, England -- Virgin Galactic announced Wednesday it is offering commercial launch services for small satellites with an air-launched rocket named LauncherOne, and four companies have placed deposits as future customers.

Artist's concept of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and LauncherOne. Credit: Virgin Galactic
The LauncherOne concept builds upon Virgin Galactic's space tourism architecture. A two-stage rocket would take off underneath the company's WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, which would drop LauncherOne before ignition to accelerate into orbit.

Virgin Galactic unveiled the initiative here at the Farnborough International Airshow.

LauncherOne would be able to place up to 500 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit, and Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, said its first flight would occur by 2016. The price of a LauncherOne mission would be less than $10 million, according to Virgin Galactic.

"Virgin Galactic's goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space," Branson said. "I'm immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo. Now, LauncherOne is bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies. It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably."

Private funding from aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi is already going toward LauncherOne development.

WhiteKnightTwo was built to haul Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane to an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo's own hybrid rocket motor will fire to propel the craft over 62 miles high, the internationally-recognized boundary between the atmosphere and space.

According to Branson, Virgin Galactic has booked deposits from 529 SpaceShipTwo passengers. SpaceShipTwo is currently in a test campaign demonstrating its ability to glide back to a runway landing following a mission.

The first rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo test flight is expected to occur before the end of 2012, according to Virgin Galactic.

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's CEO, highlighted the plight of small businesses, universities and space agencies with lightweight satellite programs. Few low-cost launchers exist to match the tight budgets of many small satellite owners.

"Small satellite launch is an area ripe for disruption," Whitesides said. "Miniaturized satellite components and constrained budgets are driving commercial clients, academic users and government agencies all to clamor for an affordable, dedicated launch vehicle. Now, thanks to aabar's investment, our existing capabilities, and the expert team we’ve already assembled, we're prepared to fill that void by bringing LauncherOne to market."

Virgin Galactic officials said LauncherOne could be based from a number of sites, although missions will at first be limited to U.S. bases. A company promotional video demonstrated the wide variety of orbits LauncherOne could reach from launch ranges including Cape Canaveral, Fla., Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and sites in Virginia and Alaska.

Stratolaunch Systems in December unveiled plans to mount a heavier rocket developed by SpaceX underneath a massive carrier airplane. The Stratolaunch concept is tailored for larger payloads than LauncherOne.

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Pegasus rocket is dropped from beneath an L-1011 carrier airplane. The solid-fueled Pegasus launcher can deliver more than 1,000 pounds to low Earth orbit and has flown 41 times.

Planetary Resources Inc., a U.S.-based firm promising to launch mining expeditions to near-Earth asteroids, said Wednesday it has an agreement with Virgin Galactic to enable the launch of multiple commercial space telescopes aboard LauncherOne.

The constellation of Arkyd 100 telescopes will fly in low Earth orbit to study nearby asteroids, gauging which objects merit a visit based on the economic value of their metals and the propulsive energy needed to reach them.

California-based Skybox Imaging, which has raised $91 million to launch at least two Earth imaging microsatellites, was also named as a LauncherOne customer. GeoOptics Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., will use LauncherOne to help loft a constellation of environmental monitoring satellites.

Spaceflight Inc. of Seattle also has an agreement with LauncherOne. Spaceflight is dedicated to supporting access to space for small satellite and manifests secondary payloads on other launch vehicles.

The U.S. subsidiary of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Sierra Nevada Corp., both builders of small satellites, will develop spacecraft platforms optimized for the LauncherOne vehicle, according to Virgin Galactic.