July 11 during the Farnborough International Air Show 2012, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, announced “LauncherOne,” a new air-launched rocket specifically designed to deliver small satellites into orbit.
With substantial funding already raised from Virgin Galactic’s partner aabar Investments PJS, and with commercial flights of this new orbital launch vehicle expected to begin by 2016, Virgin Galactic aims to offer frequent and dedicated launches at the world’s lowest prices.
Virgin Galactic also announced that four private companies have already put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to purchase a total of several dozen launches, which would exceed the level of early commitment of any previous new launch vehicle.
At the same event, Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson revealed that the company has now accepted deposits for suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo from 529 future astronauts, a number greater than the total count of people who have been to space throughout human history. This news comes following a flurry of recent test activity and confirmation that all major components of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket system have been qualified for powered flight, on track to begin before the year’s end.
“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space,” Branson said. “I’m immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo. Now, 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.”
LauncherOne will be a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 500 pounds to orbit for prices below $10 million. The rocket will be launched from Virgin Galactic’s proven WhiteKnightTwo, the uniquely capable aircraft also designed to carry SpaceShipTwo aloft to begin her suborbital missions. Thanks to the extreme flexibility of air launch, Virgin Galactic’s customers will enjoy reduced infrastructure costs in addition to the wide range of possible launch locations tailored to individual mission requirements and weather conditions. Branson and other senior executives announced that work has already begun on the vehicle.
“Virgin Galactic continues to innovate space access, and LauncherOne is a key step in its successful commercialization,” said Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of aabar Investments PJS. “This development promises to redefine the small satellite market and to promote new research and education opportunities. aabar is proud to be partnering in this exciting journey by continuing to support Virgin Galactic and its initiatives.”
Several LauncherOne customers were recognized at the event, representing a broad range of commercial satellite applications. Those named were Skybox Imaging (Skybox), a Silicon Valley-based firm that recently announced it has raised $91 million for a high resolution imaging constellation; GeoOptics Inc., a U.S.-based company developing a constellation of non-imaging remote sensing satellites; Spaceflight, Inc., the aggregator and integrator of small satellites; and Planetary Resources, Inc., the newly-announced, billionaire-backed asteroid mining venture.
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.”
Also today, two world leaders in small satellite manufacturing, Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, announced that they would create optimized satellite designs to match LauncherOne’s performance specifications. These optimized designs will allow customers to maximize the capability and minimize the time to market for their satellites. Sir Martin Sweeting, the founder of Surrey Satellite, spoke at the event about the growing potential of the small satellite industry.
“Small satellite launch is an area ripe for disruption,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “Miniaturized satellite components and constrained budgets are driving commercial clients, academic users and government agencies all to clamor for an affordable, dedicated launch vehicle. Now, thanks to aabar’s investment, our existing capabilities, and the expert team we’ve already assembled, we’re prepared to fill that void by bringing LauncherOne to market.”