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Virgin Galactic Sets Sights on 2016 for LauncherOne

By Caleb Henry | July 16, 2014
      VG LauncherOne LEO

      Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Photo: Virgin Galactic

      [Via Satellite 07-16-2014] Though more prominently known for its suborbital spaceflight business, Virgin Galactic has also been working on a dedicated small satellite launch system known as LauncherOne. Speaking to Via Satellite, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said the company hopes to have liftoff using its air-launch system within the next two years.

      “We try not to set specific deadlines with our programs, but our hope remains that the first launches of LauncherOne could happen as early as 2016,” said Whitesides. “Ultimately, the flight rate will be dictated by commercial demand; the system and our business as a whole has been established to be extremely flexible.”

      LauncherOne is carried first by the WhiteknightTwo aircraft, taking off from a runway before reaching an altitude where it can detach and launch into space. WhiteKnightTwo then returns to Earth for other flights, while LauncherOne fires up its main stage NewtonTwo engine. Next, the stage two NewtonOne engine propels the satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

      Virgin Galactic built both the engines for LauncherOne, and successfully tested them at the beginning of 2014. Each uses a pressure fed Liquid Oxygen (LOX)/RP-1 system. Whitesides said Virgin Galactic has made new developments since this testing and has made several new hires to build up the LauncherOne team.

      “In addition to ongoing progress on both of those engines, which continues to be encouraging, we’ve made great strides forward with hardware testing on our structures and our avionics for LauncherOne. We’ve also continued to firm up the system-wide design, based on the results from all of that hardware-in-the loop testing,” he said. “We’ve been putting a great deal of effort into manufacturing techniques, and into what investments we can make now that will save time and money down the road.”

      LauncherOne was supposed to begin service in 2015. Of the four customers signed up — Skybox ImagingGeoOpticsSpaceflight Inc. and Planetary Resources — at least one has shown interest in other launch providers. In February 2014 Skybox signed with Orbital Sciences to use the Minotaur C small satellite launcher for six satellites. The launch is slated to occur in late 2015, and Orbital President and CEO David Thompson said in April this year that the company was continuing discussions with Skybox for future launches. In a follow-up email, Virgin Galactic said it is “working closely” with each company and is “looking forward to taking their payloads to space in the future.” Whitesides said Virgin Galactic also has new customers in its sights.

      “We have indeed lined up multiple additional prospective customers for LauncherOne since announcing our initial set of four,” he said, adding that these companies are all based in the U.S. “Although we’ve received strong expressions of interest from outside the United States, we haven’t yet pursued any of those potential deals. We anticipate revealing more about our potential customers later this year.”

      Whitesides said Virgin Galactic is continuing to work with Sierra Nevada Corporation and SSTL on designing satellite buses specifically for LauncherOne. This benefits Virgin Galactic because some of the prospective customers that have been attracted to LauncherOne are not familiar with the satellite industry, according to Whitesides. They sometimes have no experience designing satellites, nor are they interested in manufacturing, but see the benefits that satellites can bring to their particular market sector.

      “What they are at least trying to portray is that they are ready to go,” said Michael Blades, aerospace and defense senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, noting how much Virgin Galactic has done to reach out to would-be satellite companies. “They are waiting on the customer.”

      While Virgin Galactic might be waiting on customers, the reverse is also true. The satellite industry is eager to see if LauncherOne and other dedicated small satellite launchers like Firefly Space Systems’ Firefly Alpha and Lockheed Martin’s Athena will be able to carve a niche in the market. According to Whitesides, LauncherOne delivers 225 kilograms (500lbs) to orbit for $10 million — a price point he said benefits from the unique qualities of an air-launch system.

      “We can share many assets — everything from personnel and facilities to our carrier aircraft — with other business lines within the company, meaning we are much less sensitive to flight rate and that we don’t need to pass nearly as many costs along to our customers as traditional launch providers do,” he said.

      Also relevant is whether or not the rumors of Google having interest in owning part of the company are true. Aabar Investments, based in the UAE, owns approximately one third of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Google’s potential stake would come on the heels of its other recent aerospace purchases: Titan Aerospace and Skybox Imaging. Virgin Galactic could fit nicely into a larger satellite plan like that which Google is still reportedly musing.

      “They [Google] have the atmospheric [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] UAS’s, so they have the ability to get sensors and cameras high up in the atmosphere, and then they have the satellites that can go into Low Earth Orbit for geospatial applications. What’s missing: a delivery method,” said Blades. “Obviously the Titan aircraft deliver themselves, [but] the satellites don’t … it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they at least took a stake in [Virgin Galactic] and then they [Google, would] have almost a guaranteed access to space.”

      Whitesides said nothing about Google specifically, but hinted, perhaps, that Virgin Galactic’s technology has caught the eye of more than just potential customers.

      “It’s our policy not to discuss speculation, but we are encouraged by the interest in our launch technology shown by a wide variety of companies,” he said.