Today at the Farnborough International Air Show 2012, Virgin Galactic announced a new air-launched rocket to deliver small satellites into orbit and offered updates on its manned suborbital efforts.
LauncherOne will be a two stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (225 kg) to orbit for prices "below $10 million," according to Virgin's press release. The rocket will be launched from Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, the same one that carries SpaceShipTwo aloft for manned suborbital missions.
First commercial flights of LauncherOne are expected to commence by 2016, with Virgin stating it aims to offer "frequent and dedicated launches as the world's lowest prices." Four private companies have already put down deposits as future customers, expressing their intent to purchase a total of several dozen launches. Customers named at the event were Skybox Imaging, a firm that recently announced it had raised $91 million for a high-resolution imaging constellation; GeoOptics, a company developing a constellation of non-imaging remote sensing satellites; Spaceflight, Inc., an aggregator and integrator of small satellite launches; and Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture.
It's been no big secret that Virgin Galactic has been quietly working on an air-launched small satellite system. The company has two investment rounds totaling $390 million from Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments, with a deal to include development of a small satellite launch system and exclusive regional rights to launches from a second spaceport in Abu Dhabi. Virgin is also one of three winners in a DARPA launch competition to develop an air-launched system to put 100 pounds (45kb) of payload into orbit for $1 million or less within 24 hours.
The company has also lined up UK-based Surry Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems to create optimized satellite designs to match LauncherOne performance specifications. Optimized designs will allow customers to quickly have satellites built and launched at lower cost than from-scratch efforts.
At the Farnborough event, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson said the company has now accepted deposits from 529 future astronauts planning to take a suborbital ride on SpaceShipTwo, exceeding the total number of people who have been to space throughout human history. He also confirmed that all major components of SpaceShipTwo's rocket system have been qualified for powered flight, clearing the way to begin powered flight testing before the end of the year.
This week's announcements mark a ramp-up in activity for Virgin Galactic. A piece in the July 9 Aviation Week showcased the increased pace of flight tests for SpaceShipTwo and the first pieces built for production SpaceShipTwo spaceship and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman