Virgin Galactic has revealed the next step of its plans to commercialize space flight, unveiling LauncherOne, a new launch vehicle that promises to significantly cut the cost of space exploration. The satellite launch platform will cut the cost of putting a satellite into space to potentially just a quarter of current expeditions, down to under $10m and opening up the possibility to universities and research groups.
"This new vehicle will change the whole satellite industry and space-based science research" Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said of the LauncherOne reveal. "Even before this official launch we have the largest order book of any new launch vehicle ever. The cost of putting a satellite into space before Virgin Galactic was around $30-40 million. We'll be able to do it for under $10 million, opening up space to thousands of new groups, universities and research programs."
LauncherOne will use the same WhiteKnightTwo "mothership" as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will rely on, currently on its 100th test flight, and which will provide a moving launch point for the company's missions. When approximately 50,000 feet above sea level, LauncherOne will be released from its berth underneath WhiteKnightTwo, free-fall for around four seconds, and then trigger its first stage rocket. After that, the second stage will fire one or more times, until the satellite payload is delivered to low-earth orbit.
"LauncherOne will go around the world at 80,000mph in 80 minutes" Branson said today. "It's actually 90 minutes, but I thought around the world in 80 minutes sounded better!"
In LauncherOne's favor is WhiteKnightTwo's flexibility: Virgin Galactic will be able to fly the platform to customers' centers of operation, rather than them have to transport satellites to fixed launch positions. "LauncherOne in its most typical configuration will be capable of delivering on the order of 500 lb (225 kg) to low inclination Low Earth Orbit," Virgin Galactic says, "and 225 lb (100 kg) to a higher altitude, Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit. Other configurations may offer significantly greater performance."