[Satellite News 07-12-12] Virgin Galactic is developing its LauncherOne rocket to carry small satellites into orbit at a fraction of current estimated cost, the company’s founder Richard Branson confirmed July 11 at the Farnborough International Airshow.
“I believe this new vehicle will create a long overdue shake-up of the whole satellite industry, disrupting current norms and limitations,” Branson said in a statement.
Separately, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides confirmed that four customers had already put down deposits to book satellite launchings on the new vehicle, which could start launching missions by 2016. The two-stage LauncherOne rocket is capable of carrying payloads of up to 500 pounds into orbit. Whitesides said that the company has priced each launch for less than $10 million.
Branson also unveiled a full-size model of Virgin Galatic’s SpaceShipTwo, which was designed to carry tourists into space for $200,000 a seat. Both LauncherOne and SpaceShipTwo will be carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet by the company’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. LauncherOne will then fire its engines and lift the satellite into its final orbit. SpaceShipTwo could launch its first passengers as early as next year, accelerating the launch market’s long-envisioned plans to develop a viable space tourism industry.
“I’m immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo,” said Branson. “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.”
Virgin Galactic also rolled out several statement of support from customers hailing the vehicle’s flexibility and ability to reduce infrastructure costs. Aabar Investments CEO Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny said the new launch vehicle offerings provide a wide range of possible launch locations tailored to individual mission requirements and weather conditions.
“Virgin Galactic continues to innovate space access, and LauncherOne is a key step in its successful commercialization,” Al-Husseiny said in a statement. “This development promises to redefine the small satellite market and to promote new research and education opportunities. Aabar is proud to be partnering in this exciting journey by continuing to support Virgin Galactic and its initiatives.”
Skybox Imaging CEO Tom Ingersoll also voiced his support for Virgin Galactic’s plans. “Skybox’s objective is to provide world-class, affordable access to space imagery and information, and in order to do so, we need world-class, affordable access to space. Virgin Galactic is unique in having the right mix of ingredients to support our vision, as well as that of the growing small satellite community. We plan to make full use of LauncherOne,” Ingersoll said in a statement.
The Virgin Galactic launch service development could compete with several commercial space companies already targeting the private enterprise sector. SpaceX, which became the first private company to send a cargo rocket to the International Space Station in May, has also been developing a space tourism strategy.
Analysts, however, said Virgin Galatic’s biggest competitor would most likely be Orbital Sciences, which recently developed its own air-launched vehicle, Pegasus XL. Virgin Galastic said its vehicle not only could be used for single-satellite launch scenarios, but also configured to release a swarm of low Earth orbit microsatellites in a single launch.