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Virgin Galactic Scales Up for Launch Cadence of 20 to 30 Per Year

By | March 17, 2015
      VG LauncherOne LEO

      Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Photo: Virgin Galactic

      [Via Satellite 03-17-2015] With a recently christened manufacturing facility, Virgin Galactic is gearing up for regular missions with the LauncherOne small satellite vehicle. The Long Beach, Calif. facility, first announced in February, is now open.

      LauncherOne is among the most promising small satellite, or “SmallSat,” launch vehicles under development. The reusable WhiteKnightTwo plane carries the rocket through the densest part of Earth’s atmosphere, then returns to Earth for other flights, as LauncherOne’s engines carry payloads to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The two-stage rocket is designed to launch small satellites with a mass of up to 225 kilograms (500 pounds). The new manufacturing plant paves the way for the steady production of LauncherOne rockets.

      “We’ve sized the facility so that we can get [rockets] quite often,” George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic said at the SATELLITE 2015 conference. “We’ll see whether market demand shapes up for that, but I think we could accommodate up to 20 to 30 launches a year.”

      Previously announced customers for the LauncherOne system include Skybox Imaging, GeoOptics, Spaceflight Inc., and Planetary Resources, along with the more recent OneWeb. SmallSats have certainly proliferated in recent years, with many companies planning constellations of hundreds or more spacecraft for both remote sensing and, perhaps more daringly, telecommunications.

      Whitesides attributed the catalytic increase in SmallSats to three main drivers: the global hunger for more data, mass production techniques leveraging commodity electronics, and new funding resources, particularly from the information industry.

      “The results of these trends will greatly benefit life on Earth, and could form the basis for a new layer of information infrastructure that goes far beyond what we have today and becomes essentially permanent. That new infrastructure will have to be constantly replenished, thus creating a persistent need for lower priced satellites and their accompanying launch vehicles,” he said.

      Whitesides cited companies such as Planet Labs, Skybox Imaging, and SpaceQuest as fueling SmallSat growth and the analogous growth in SmallSat launch providers as their faster replenishment cycles and iteration rates build up demand for new systems. And while not disclosing names, he confirmed that other customers have committed to LauncherOne. “We’ve signed up several more customers since then, most of which we haven’t announced publically,” he said.

      Whitesides admitted that progress with LauncherOne has taken longer than anticipated. The rocket was originally due to enter service this year. Now the plan is for a debut launch in 2016. But Virgin Galactic has made healthy progress toward this goal. Whitesides announced that the company’s larger first stage engine, the Newton 3, is in hot fire testing as of now. The Newton 3, a Liquid Oxygen (LOX)-Kerosene engine, builds on the developments the smaller Newton 1 and Newton 2 engines. Virgin Galactic tested both the Newton 1 and Newton 2 in 2014. The pump-fed Newton 3 can provide 60,000 to 75,000 pounds of thrust, he said. Whitesides added the company is using some of the latest manufacturing techniques to build the system, and is not trying out new propellants, opting instead for vetted, tried and true systems. Throughout the process of designing the engine it evolved into an in-house project, though he said this was not originally anticipated.

      “We went out and looked at the rocket engines we could find, and quickly discovered that it is hard to build a cheap rocket if you are stuck building expensive rocket engines, or engines with complex sourcing arrangements,” he said.

      Leveraging the benefits of an air-launched system, Whitesides said firing the engines at a higher starting altitude enables Virgin Galactic to design its rocket engine nozzles to be more efficient, since the ideal expansion ratio of a rocket changes with altitude on an exponential basis. Furthermore, Whitesides anticipates the payload fraction of the SmallSat rocket will be comparable to that of a traditional LOX-kerosene rocket.

      Virgin Galactic expects to be able to launch, as a function of market demand, with a regularity that small satellite operators have previously never had access to. Along with leveraging the benefits of not being tied down to specific range infrastructure, the company is also looking to streamline regulatory safety issues.

      “Having the ability to conduct the mission away from an existing range doesn’t help very much if you still need to tie back to the same range in order to give someone the ability to terminate a launch if you are having a bad day,” Whitesides explained. “We’re working on autonomous flight termination systems. The good news is that if you are dealing with a system that’s carried out over the ocean, at least at a high altitude those flight termination systems can be a lot simpler than if you are flying a rocket over a critical national asset.”

      Aside from mega-constellations like those of OneWeb and SpaceX, research firm Euroconsult projects approximately 510 SmallSats will launch in the next five years, an increase of two-thirds over the number orbited in the last 10 years. NSR, in a report not specific to SmallSats, estimates more than 1,800 satellites weighing more than 50 kilograms will be built and launched over the next decade. Existing and proposed launch systems from other newcomers such as Rocket Lab, Firefly Space Systems, and Zero2Infiniti, along with renewed interest from established players including Lockheed Martin, Arianespace, and Boeing assures this will be a competitive environment.