Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to launch small satellites

LauncherOne and Richard Branson Sir Richard has been mulling the idea of a satellite launcher for a number of years

Virgin Galactic is pushing ahead with its small satellite launch system.

The company started by UK billionaire Sir Richard Branson is primarily focused on taking fare-paying passengers into space.

But the technology being developed to take up people could also be adapted to send aloft smaller Earth observation and communications spacecraft.

Sir Richard confirmed details of his LauncherOne concept at the Farnborough International Airshow.

"I believe this vehicle will create a long overdue shake-up of the whole satellite industry, disrupting current norms and limitations in exactly the way that SpaceShipTwo has for human space travel and space-based science research," he told a special media event.

"This confidence comes from more than a natural optimism because even before its official launch, we have four private companies who've already put down deposits as future customers, expressing their intent to purchase multiple satellite launches."

LauncherOne LauncherOne is slung beneath WhiteKnightTwo and carried to 50,000ft before release

A rocket to put spacecraft in orbit is something Virgin Galactic has been talking about since 2009 but which was put on the backburner while the company concentrated on its SpaceShipTwo passenger vehicle.

LauncherOne would look much like the current Pegasus system, which is operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation.

This uses a former airliner to lift a booster to 40,000ft, before releasing it to make its own way into orbit.

The booster ejects the satellite a few hundred kilometres above the Earth. This is how Nasa launched its most recent mission in June - the Nustar X-ray Observatory.

But many small satellite operators say Pegasus is priced out of their reach, and Virgin Galactic believes its air-launched alternative could be made significantly cheaper.

"We're going to keep our design simple - use a lot of proven technologies. We're not about to prove new advanced systems," explained chief technical officer, Steve Isakowitz.

"Addtionally, and this is key, we're looking to maximize and leverage what we're already doing on the WhiteKnight and spaceship programme."

In-house design

The concept calls for a two-stage rocket that would be powered by engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene.

The vehicle should be capable of lofting payloads of up 225kg (500lb) into low-Earth orbits, and for a price below $10m.

Virgin has recruited a dedicated team to design and build LauncherOne in Mojave and Pasadena, California.

The maiden flight is expected in 2015 with commercial operations starting in 2016.

Part of the reason the company thinks it can lower costs is because, unlike Pegasus, it already has a carrier aircraft - the same plane that will be lifting the passenger spaceship to its launch altitude.

And WhiteKnightTwo, or "Eve" as this aircraft is known, is going to be kept extremely busy, making for a very efficient operation.

"We're going to keep our design simple - use a lot of proven technologies. We're not about to prove new advanced systems," explained chief technical officer, Steve Isakowitz.

"Additionally, and this is key, we're looking to maximize and leverage what we're already doing on the WhiteKnight and spaceship programme."

Not just people
SpaceShipTwo In its passenger role, WhiteKnight will deliver SpaceShipTwo to the launch altitude

Virgin announced here at Farnborough that it has now taken deposits from 529 people who want to fly in space.

These are people who will have to part with $200,000 (£128,000) before they board SpaceShipTwo. All have been promised they will fly within the first couple of years of operation. Sir Richard himself says he hopes to ride into space in 2013.

The LauncherOne proposal is part of Virgin Galactic's strategy to diversify its business.

It also wants to work with governments and institutions that might want to fly scientific experiments in the high atmosphere or in the weightless conditions experienced on a sub-orbital flight.

Virgin Galactic says it already has firm commitments to use LauncherOne. Among these promises is Planetary Resources Inc, the newly announced, billionaire-backed asteroid mining venture.

Market opportunities

But Virgin is also attracting interest from well established small spacecraft manufacturers, such as the UK's Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

It has signed a memorandum of understanding with Branson's company, and will be looking at how to optimize its payloads for the new rocket system.

Currently, a customer buying a satellite from SSTL will use the British firm to also source a launch opportunity for them as well.

This has become a complex process for Surrey in recent years. It has pioneered the use of former Russian ballistic missiles but booking reliable launch dates is far from simple, and the price of these ex-military vehicles is also going up.

In future, SSTL hopes to offer LauncherOne as part of its satellite package.

"This is a market stimulus if we can reach the right price point for launch vehicle and satellite bus together," said Dr John Paffett from Surrey's US office.

"Today, the market is being stifled in some instances by the costs associated with getting the payload into orbit. If collectively we can reduce that price further then I am sure it will open up the market for all of us," he told BBC News.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • Comment number 56.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    "Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, A Time for Everything
    "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.""

    "It steam engines when it comes steam engine time..." - Charles Fort

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Small Low-Earth Orbit spacecraft naturally re-enter and burn up at the end of operational life. They fall because there is some atmospheric drag at low (space) altitude that gradually slows them down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    How come space is doing so well whereas earth is doing so poorly.
    It annoys me to see billions of dollars going into space travel (tourism) while what is going to the poverty-stricken is next to nothing. Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, A Time for Everything
    "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven."

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    More power to his elbow, Branson is the type of person who inspires and is a person who I personally admire.
    Good luck

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.


    Don;t confuse hype with 'get up and go', which this country seems to be lacking alot of the time.

    Thanks to people like Richard, we continue to be on the world map of achievements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    He's an explorer and record breaker - an inspiration. As a 6 year old I built a lego model of his atlantic crossing recordbreaking boat. I have no doubt I'd be building lego models of the new space plane and launcher if i was 6 and had enough white lego pieces!

    You go and inspire our kids more! And thank you for fuelling my imagination as a child!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I find it odd that in the same week that one of the UK's richest women threw her life away so needlessly, that people can be so vitriolic towards a billionaire that spends his time & money on genuinely interesting and innovative projects.

    I think Virgin Galactic has stalled a bit as Branson has realised it's a lot harder to get into space than he thought, but he's certainly not going to give up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    This is the science and environment page, what do you expect hear, more bankers are bad / boo to the EU discussions?

    To those that knock RB. There are a number of pilers to advancement, one is the idea and the will to push it foreword and the other is a fund of cash to enable this to happen. He provides the latter and as the gamble is so expensive and public I applaud him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    How technology moves on!!

    In the old days, space rockets were massive things.

    Now they're so small Sir Richard can hold one in his hands.

    Where will it end?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    With Cornwall's Newquay airport being one of the longest in the country, Goonhilly earth station not too far away and not too busy, it would be an ideal time for Skylon, Surrey Satellite Systems and Virgin to make the most of the funding the EU is giving new projects in Cornwall. Put a high speed train line to Newquay from London and that would solve London's Airport problems as well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Many will argue that Sir Richard will lose popular support if he continues with projects designed to titillate other billionaires.

    The small satellite launch system is a thin veil over his primary aspirations.

    Come on Sir Richard, put your money into the Skylon concept being developed by Reaction Engines Ltd and let's see British engineering flourish again.

    (but maybe he has?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I can see a new business opportunity for Mr Branson in this.
    "Virgin Space Funerals"
    The tag line could be .. "Reach Heaven with Virgin"

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    actually this is an excellent example of entrepreneurship. i don't think this is about ego; it is about the spirit of exploration, can-do attitude and no shy away from failure. well done!

    instead of gov wasting money on over-priced projects, private sector could do the same or better job with much lesser resources/money, simply because private sector can't afford to loose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Another waste of limited resources - burning vast amounts of fuel so that egos can go higher then ever before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    It would have to work a darned sight more reliably than any other Virgin branded technology I have had the misfortune to be subjected to before I would consider it even if I had the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Great to see the entrepreneur going from strength to strength. I'd like to think that the rest of us on this planet move in the same direction and benefit from our the ever increasing demands and hard work placed upon us. There will come a time, however and in the not too distant future, when the financial differentials will need to be addressed in European countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I wonder if we could launch his ego into space?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Seriously?...this is what we get to comment on in HYS?

  • Comment number 37.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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