Virgin Galactic has unveiled an air-launched rocket designed to deliver small satellites into orbit.
The company started by Sir Richard Branson, said commercial flights of the new orbital launch vehicle LauncherOne would be expected to begin by 2016.
“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space,” Branson said.
“I’m immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo.
“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 said that four private companies have already put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, while the company had also received deposits for suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo from 529 future astronauts, a number greater than the total count of people who have been to space throughout human history.
Recent tests have qualified all major components of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket system for powered flight, on track to begin before the year’s end.
LauncherOne will be a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 225 kilograms to orbit for prices below $10 million.
The rocket will be launched from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft designed to carry SpaceShipTwo aloft to begin suborbital missions.
Branson and other senior executives announced that work has already begun on the vehicle.
“Virgin Galactic continues to innovate space access, and LauncherOne is a key step in its successful commercialization,” said Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of aabar Investments PJS which has raised funding for the project as Virgin Galactic's partner.
“This development promises to redefine the small satellite market and to promote new research and education opportunities.”
LauncherOne customers include Skybox Imaging (Skybox), a Silicon Valley-based firm that recently announced it has raised $91 million for a high resolution imaging constellation; GeoOptics, a U.S.-based company developing a constellation of non-imaging remote sensing satellites; Spaceflight, the aggregator and integrator of small satellites; and Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining venture.
“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,” said Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll.
Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, small satellite manufacturers, announced that they would create optimised satellite designs to match LauncherOne’s performance specifications.
These optimised designs will allow customers to maximise the capability and minimise the time to market for their satellites.
“Small satellite launch is an area ripe for disruption,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
“Miniaturized satellite components and constrained budgets are driving commercial clients, academic users and government agencies all to clamour for an affordable, dedicated launch vehicle."