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LauncherOne: Virgin Galactic's other project

Jonathan Amos | 14:35 UK time, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

You are going to hear a lot in the next few weeks about Virgin Galactic, not least because on 7 December the company will unveil SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert, California.

This is the rocket plane Sir Richard Branson will use to take fare-paying passengers on sub-orbital flights in the coming years.

In this posting, however, I want to concentrate on another Galactic project which is now gathering pace - the LauncherOne satellite system.

Potential architecture for LauncherOne

Back in January, I reported on early discussions between the Branson outfit and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in Guildford.

SSTL is a world leader in the production of low-cost small satellites, and it was keen to explore the possibility of working with Virgin Galactic on a way to get these spacecraft into orbit much more cheaply than is currently possible.

The concept would be somewhat similar to the US Pegasus system, which uses a former airliner to lift a booster to 40,000ft, before releasing it to make its own way into space.

Virgin Galactic's aim is to provide an air-launched system which is faster, cheaper, and more flexible.

It would use SpaceShipTwo's mothership, "Eve", as the launch platform.

Dr Adam Baker, then at SSTL, was hoping for some money from the UK government to do a small feasibility study. The hope was that if things came together, LauncherOne could be a UK-built rocket despatched by Eve running out of a British airport somewhere.

Well, the money wasn't immediately forthcoming and Dr Baker has now moved across to Virgin Galactic to lead its own in-house efforts to give the project momentum.

So where are we? Dr Baker has been in post little more than a month. He's speaking to anyone and everyone, from those who might be interested in helping to build such a launcher to those who might want to use it to put a payload into orbit.

Certainly, there's a compelling need for a cheaper, more flexible launch system for small satellites.

At the moment, companies like SSTL are in a less than satisfactory position.

They often have to wait on the availability of converted Soviet-era missiles, such as Dnepr. This can add months to the timeline of a project.

Sometimes, the launches can get bumped by "more urgent" Russian military payloads, or have to wait while a problem on a satellite co-passenger is resolved (small satellites on a Dnepr are launched in batches).

The issue for LauncherOne, of course, is cost.

At the moment, a small satellite wanting to get into space may have to pay something like $5m-$10m. Virgin Galactic really has to get that down to $1m-$2m for this venture to make financial sense.

And to make that happen, Dr Baker believes the development cost of the rocket to first flight also needs to be kept the right side $100m:

"The less we can spend developing this, the easier it is going to be to recoup the cost, and the lower the launch price can be.
"Historically, rockets that have been developed from scratch have cost a lot more than $100m. We want to take as much advantage from all the previous 50 years of effort in designing launch vehicles to get the best from the market."

The British imperative is still there. If this vehicle can come out of the UK, so much the better, says Dr Baker. He'd love nothing better than for LauncherOne to be a UK-led initiative. But Virgin will not be overly sentimental about this. It's a business.

Interestingly, feasibility studies have been done in this field before in the UK, including on the possibility of using a Vulcan bomber as the platform for an air-launched satellite service. At least one small assessment has found the economics don't stack up.

Perhaps Virgin Galactic and British industry can show otherwise.

Who'd have thought before Brian Binnie and Mike Melville made their historic flights in SpaceShipOne that trips on a civil spaceliner would soon be possible?

Watch this space.


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  • 1. At 9:51pm on 10 Nov 2009, curiousman wrote:

    I'm amazed this launch method wasn't developed earlier. Guess we in the UK "just can't afford it" and the others had their wasteful launch systems originally developed for military purposes. At last SSTL are getting innovative launches. Prof Sweeting (is he still there?) and Prof Pillinger appear to be the only two space scientists with commercial acumen and foresight to keep the space dream alive in the UK. We need icons like these to retain an advanced technology base, and every schoolboy's dream!

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  • 2. At 00:19am on 11 Nov 2009, knowles2 wrote:

    May be it just me but I would of thought this would be top priority for the government space strategy, given that most of the UK money goes on studying the Earth, one would of thought that decreasing the costs of launching small satelites design to study the Earth would be some what important to our goals.

    It seems like everything else with this government it rather spend money of wasteful projects.

    This also sound like a perfect target for the UK to take 50% share of the cost of the project, with the commercial side taking the other 50% percent on, of cause this would actually means the government investing something which does not have bank in it title.

    Just like the change in the law needed for Virgin Galactic in this country I sure we will still be discussing this in five years time we no decision taken. Just like we still be discussing the possibility of a UK space agency.

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  • 3. At 12:26pm on 11 Nov 2009, Roy Bayliss wrote:

    Hi I believe My brother and I can help with future engines for your craft,
    a turbine RB211 that will run in space one motor from take off to space.
    Yes this can be done with some help

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  • 4. At 1:01pm on 11 Nov 2009, Roy Bayliss wrote:

    I do not want money at this time just for someone to take an interest
    in this project

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  • 5. At 3:10pm on 11 Nov 2009, Tori wrote:

    curiousman, actually this concept is not new at all, the OSC Pegasus rocket has been lugging small payloads to LEO like this since 1990.

    Designed by Burt Rutan :)

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  • 6. At 3:15pm on 11 Nov 2009, Barry Spencer wrote:

    Without a doubt, I feel this really is a project that we should be funding. So much of our technology in space launcher and rocket systems in this country has been proven only to be discarded. Can Britain afford this? I think history speaks loud and clear here, can we afford not to!

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  • 7. At 8:08pm on 11 Nov 2009, Barry Spencer wrote:

    I copy below a follow up to my earlier post, also submitted to the Times Letters

    How to lose your place in space

    After reading with enthusiasm that the UK government was behind the concept of a low cost air launched satellite system, I suppose it was with a sense of inevitable despair on the BBC website at that today I read the funds are not available. The Americans it seems are enjoying the benefits of technological investment with their new launch vehicle Aries, powered as it is by a Saturn V engine from the late 60’s! The tax payers of this country have I am sure not resented the not insignificant sums of money invested on their behalf in what amounts to equally fully transferable technologies in this arena that include the likes of Blue Streak, Black Knight, and of course Black Arrow, cancelled I understand by the stroke of pen from a first in English, no mention of any engineering there, well why would there be!!!!

    Reading the article it seems that someone actually had the vision of using the high altitude Vulcan bomber while it was still in service, but guess what the numbers didn’t stack up, let me guess – here you are old chap, now we want a satellite launcher that costs virtually sod all and staffed by volunteers – yet another self fulfilling prophecy then from the ministry of arms reach horizons, brilliant, if would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

    The young people, engineers, scientists of this great country of ours are it seems short on many things these days and not least a sense of vision, pride and motivation that could be so easily fed by our engaging in the space launcher business. I attend regularly the annual UK Space conference and am fully aware of the stirling first class work we conduct in this country with regard to space. I am equally aware of the many billions of pounds per annum the space industry contributes to our wayward economy and the many tens of thousands it employs.

    In closing I pose your likely response: We can’t afford it

    My answer: We can’t afford not to.

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  • 8. At 1:13pm on 12 Nov 2009, AstroTek wrote:

    This is the sort of project that would be hugely beneficial to the UK, on so many levels including technological advancement, job/wealth creation and an inspiration for those wishing to take up engineering/science.

    A collaboration between public and private sectors would probably be best in order to help boost the private aerospace/space sector, a bit like how NASA creates prize incentives etc that has proved highly successful in the USA. We also already have experience of designing/developing/producing air launched rockets - think Blue Steel, I'd start looking at that for starters, and also the development that has gone into the Falcon Hybrid rocket engine for the Bloodhound supersonic car would be another obvious port of call.

    The UK is probably the only country in the world who reached the technological pinnacle of developing its own space launch assets and then throw it away in a fit of political short sightedness that has cost this country dearly in terms of technological innovation and progress, lets try and make sure this doesn't happen again... we can't afford not to.

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