Monday, July 16, 2012

Virgin Galactic Announces LauncherOne System for Small Satellites

The White Knight plane will be used to launch a small rocket
carrying satellites. 
On July 11, Virgin Galactic announced that they were building a new kind of launch system for small satellites. The system, dubbed "LauncherOne", will build upon their existing SpaceShipOne launch system, which launches a suborbital space plane off of their unique White Knight airplane. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's hippy-entrepreneur founder, said at the press conference that the company plans to be launching small satellites by 2016. The specs: 500 pounds of payload for under $10 million. This is the first privately-funded launching system specifically designed for small satellites, and Branson says: 
"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."
The other benefit of the system, aside from the affordability, is the flexibility allowed by a plane-based launch system.  This reduces infrastructure headaches (and costs) associated with launch vehicle setup and deployment, and allows satellite builders to launch their satellite from a huge selection of sites, thereby releasing their satellites into a wider range of orbital planes than is otherwise possible. For an Earth-Observation constellation the more planes their satellites are in, the better the coverage of Earth at any given time.

Initial information about LauncherOne is that it would use a two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. The video below shows what the launch progression will look like.

(I like that they drop the "save the Earth" spiel after the obligatory shots of  deforested plains and fuming smokestacks. "Melting Glaciers? Check. Let's get to the good stuff." Also, the satellites being launched from LauncherOne will likely not be large enough to have deployable Solar Arrays, but that's a nit pick.)

Virgin Atlantic also announced that they already have at least four companies signed up to buy several launches on the new vehicle. One of the companies recognized as an early customer (that is very near and dear to me) was Skybox Imaging, a Silicon-Valley based commercial Earth imagery startup. Speaking at the event, Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll said, "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."

Other companies signed up to buy rides on LauncherOne include GeoOptics Inc., a U.S.-based company developing a constellation of non-imaging remote sensing satellites; Spaceflight, Inc., a aggregator and integrator of small satellites; and Planetary Resources, Inc., the newly-announced, billionaire-backed company that plans to make millions mining asteroids.

This is a really neat prospect, and can only mean good things for the smallsat community!