Suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic announced at the recent Farnborough International Air Show, in the UK, that work had started on the development of a small satellite launch rocket, designated LauncherOne, that will be dropped from the company’s WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft. It will provide commercial small satellite launch services.
WK2 was originally developed to carry the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital passenger spacecraft. WK2 will carry SS2 to altitudes around 16 000 m and release the spacecraft, which will then ignite its rocket motor and soar into space for a suborbital flight, after which it will re-enter the atmosphere and glide back to base. The same approach will be used with LauncherOne, except that, of course, the end result will be the orbital flight of a small satellite. The new rocket will be able to launch satellites with a mass of up to 225 kg, and is forecast to be able to do so at prices below $10-million. LauncherOne will be a two-stage rocket.
Because LauncherOne will be dropped from an aircraft, launch infrastructure costs will be much reduced and it will be possible to do launches from many locations, giving great flexibility to customers. Simultaneously, two of the world’s leading small satellite manufacturers, Surrey Satellite Technologies, of the UK, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, of the US, announced that they would develop satellite designs that would be compatible with the LauncherOne specifications.
Virgin Galactic has a partner in the LauncherOne programme, Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments PJS. Virgin Galactic is itself a US subsidiary of renowned British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin group. The LauncherOne concept was first floated by Virgin in 2009 and the first commercial flights could take place in 2016. A number of companies have already signed up to use the system.
“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionise the way we get to space. “I’m immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo,” affirmed 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.
“Small satellite launch is an area ripe for disruption. “Miniaturised satellite components and constrained budgets are driving commercial clients, academic users and government agencies all to clamour for an affordable, dedicated launch vehicle,” highlighted Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “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.”
Like WK2 and SS2, LauncherOne is a product of The Spaceship Company, which is a joint venture between the Virgin group and Scaled Composites (the company which designed and originally developed the WK2 and SS2). Scaled Composites was founded by equally renowned US aerospace engineer and designer Burt Rutan.
Meanwhile, SS2 is expected to make its first powered flight before the end of this year, and 529 people have booked seats for flights into space on the craft – this number is greater than the total number of people who have ever been in space.
It should be noted that LauncherOne is not the world’s first air-dropped satellite launch vehicle. US company Orbital has, since 1990, orbited more than 80 small satellites in 41 launches of its Pegasus air-dropped three-stage rocket. The company uses a modified Lockheed Martin L-1011 Tristar widebody airliner as its carrier aircraft.