[Satellite News 06-26-12] Virgin Galactic is renewing its efforts to start up a commercial launch operation for small satellites under the brand name Virgin Galactic Cargo, according to a statement given by Virgin Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough at the European Space Tourism Conference last week.
According to reports from Space.com and several conference attendees, Attenborough acknowledged that Virgin Galactic was likely picking up its launch effort from where it left off in 2009. “Virgin Galactic Cargo will follow soon, watch out for some potential announcements there in the not too distant future regarding small satellites,” said Attenborough.
Virgin Galactic released a statement June 21 that it would hold a press conference at the Farnborough air show on July 11, during which company founder Richard Branson is expected to announce the Virgin Galactic Cargo entity and reveal design changes to his tourism spacecraft SpaceShipTwo (SS2).
In December 2011, Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen partnered with aircraft developer Burt Rutan to built SpaceShipOne (SS1), a reusable space plane that can launch into and return from Earth’s space orbit. According to documents published Dec. 14, the partners said they also are working on a project that could result in a reusable launch method for satellites.
Rutan, who designed the SS2 vehicle that is being used by Virgin Galactic, told reporters that the aircraft launch system is being called Stratolaunch and is still in the design stages. The aircraft would have a wingspan wider than a football field and need a runway at least 12,000 feet long. A concept drawing of the aircraft, also published Dec. 14, shows the spacecraft as a twin-boom design, with a rocket booster that would be dropped at an altitude of 30,000 feet with its satellite payload.
Allen confirmed he would invest approximately $200 million from one of his funds into the project. The aircraft would include six engines from a Boeing 747 hanging underneath the wings, as well as landing gear from a normal passenger aircraft.
In July 2009, Virgin Galactic raised $280 million in a 32 percent company stake purchase by Aabar Investments in Abu Dhabi. Virgin Galactic was valued at $900 million as a result of the purchase.
Aabar invested $100 million to build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi in order to launch satellites and to guarantee exclusive regional rights to host tourist and scientific space flights for the Arab Emirates country. The firm also agreed to invest $110 million in the small satellite launcher project if it was proven to be economically feasible. But, the project went into hiatus in October 2010 after a key U.K.-based staffer working on the project left the company.
Aabar’s largest shareholder behind the deal is International Petroleum Investment Co., owned by the Abu Dhabi government.
The changes to the Virgin Galactic Cargo SS2 that are set for unveiling in July could include an unmanned rocket that would be air launched by SS2’s carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) to carry satellites weighing up to 440 pounds into low-Earth orbit. When Virgin Galactic announced the plan in 2009, the company said it could offer a price tag of $1 million to $2 million per launch.
Bigelow Aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow told Satellite News last year that companies such as Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are changing the dynamics of the launch industry. “Space launch was expensive 50 years ago because it was a new and unknown activity. Today, there is no good reason for space operations to be so expensive. Companies such as ourselves and Virgin Galactic are demonstrating that the costs of space launch and hardware can be dramatically reduced, without sacrificing safety or capability, by applying smart business practices in combination with some new technologies. SpaceShipOne, [SpaceX’s] Falcon 9, and the Dragon capsule are all direct evidence that space can and should be affordable.”
Today, Virgin is targeting work the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), which was announced in November 2011. Space.com reported that Virgin Galactic was awarded an 18-month ALASA contract and that DARPA was interested in airborne launch systems that could put a 100-pound satellite into orbit for less than $1 million. NASA previously contracted Virgin Galactic for three chartered microgravity research flights with a value of up to $4.5 million.