Putting a satellite into space will soon cost €9 million or less thanks to Virgin Galactic, whose liquid-fuelled LauncherOne starts its journey cradled beneath a Boeing 747-400. DirectIndustry e-magazine spoke to Will Pomerantz, Vice President, Special Projects at Virgin Galactic about how this technical achievement could transform the business of smallsat launch.
The Cosmic Girl
Virgin Galactic—best known for its ambition to become the Earth’s first “spaceline”—plans to use a 747-400 (nicknamed Cosmic Girl) recently retired from Virgin Atlantic’s fleet to air-launch the company’s two-stage rocket from 10,000 meters. For Pomerantz, the price of a 200 kg launch will begin at €9 million.
“LauncherOne is custom-built for launching smaller satellites, from 400 kg down to 2 kg, into a standard sun-synchronous orbit.“
Orbital ATK’s three-stage Pegasus rocket can place 600 kg in orbit from a Lockheed Martin L-1011 airplane, but flights cost a whopping €45 million.
“For the same money, companies could launch their small satellites from LauncherOne three, four or even five times.“
Newton Defies Gravity
To date, Virgin Galactic has been little more than a brand, subcontracting manufacture of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft to Scaled Composites, and its hybrid propulsion system to Sierra Nevada Space Systems.
However, the expendable LauncherOne rocket is being designed and built in-house and is powered by its own rocket engines, called Newton. The RP-1 kerosene and supercooled liquid oxygen fuel, known for its stability and safety, also powers Soyuz rockets taking astronauts to the International Space Station.
Released from under the wing, the LauncherOne will fire its NewtonThree, a 335-kilonewton thrust engine. After three minutes, fuel is exhausted and the first stage separates. The second stage NewtonFour 22-kilonewton engine then carries the payload into orbit. Test flights are planned for late 2016, and orbital launches from 2017.
A Space Industry Buzz
The main impetus behind LauncherOne was Virgin Galactic’s many orders for small satellite launches that it can’t fill using planned SpaceShipTwo test flights.
“NASA is a customer of ours. It’s already purchased a LauncherOne flight to do small satellite science.“
GeoOptics, Spaceflight Inc., Skybox and Planetary Resources also have signed up for launches. But the biggest LauncherOne deal is with OneWeb, a project to put a constellation of 700 satellites in near-Earth orbit to provide affordable, high-speed, satellite-based Internet (see our article The Conquest of Space Awakens published in December 2015). OneWeb—whose investors include the Virgin Group, as well as Qualcomm, Airbus, Coca-Cola, Intelsat and Hughes Network Systems—will deploy its first 39 satellites using LauncherOne.
“There’s an option for 100 more, but even without it, it’s one of the largest satellite orders on the books.“
NASA also has smallsat launch contracts with Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, but there’s space industry buzz around LauncherOne. Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Surrey Satellite Technology are already constructing satellite buses around LauncherOne’s design, but with a bigger payload. Either way, it seems as if Virgin Galactic’s rocket tech could soon launch it into a lucrative new business.