Four years from now, a powerful new rocket will be lifted to altitude by Scaled Composites’ WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, carrying with it the promise of bringing down the cost of delivering payload into orbit to a fraction of its present figure. Yesterday, at the Farnborough Air Show, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson formally unveiled the new, two-stage vehicle, ‘LauncherOne’, and confirmed that his company – the world’s first commercial spaceline – has now received 529 deposits from future passengers for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital craft. They include the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking, Apollo 13 actor Tom Hanks and Hollywood superstars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Current plans call for LauncherOne to deliver up to 500 lb (225 kg) of payload into low-Earth orbit at costs of less than $10 million. This remarkable goal is made possible by the fact that the rocket will ride into the high atmosphere between the twin fuselages of WhiteKnightTwo. It will be air-launched at an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,200 m), whereupon it will free-fall for four seconds, then ignite its first-stage engine. The second stage, which can be re-lit in flight, will then boost the payload into orbit.
Sir Richard expects that LauncherOne will be mated, checked out and shipped, unfuelled, to a primary staging site for storage, ahead of the arrival of a customer’s payload and WhiteKnightTwo. Alternatively, the payload may be integrated at a central Virgin Galactic facility – such as the Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar (FAITH) in Mojave, California – or even ‘bolted-on’ at the launch site, ahead of takeoff. It is projected that large financial savings will be achievable, because customers will no longer have to choose between the limitations of flying as a secondary payload or paying dramatically more for a dedicated launch vehicle. Moreover, WhiteKnightTwo’s air-launch capability promises to enhance operational flexibility and open up a range of potential takeoff sites.
On the heels of his LauncherOne announcement, Sir Richard revealed that four private companies have already laid down deposits for a total of several dozen flights on the rocket; a level of confidence which exceeds any previous new launcher. Skybox Imaging is a developer of high-resolution imaging satellites and its CEO, Tom Ingersoll, described his reasons for the choice. “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,” he said. “We plan to make full use of LauncherOne.” So too, it appears, will GeoOptics, Inc., a builder of remote-sensing satellites, Spaceflight, Inc., a small-satellite manufacturer, and Planetary Resources, Inc., which has its sights set on future asteroid mining operations.
At the same time, small-satellite developers Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems have also revealed their intention to create optimised spacecraft designs to meet LauncherOne’s performance specifications.
As Virgin Galactic’s first WhiteKnightTwo – named in honour of Sir Richard’s mother, Eve – continues its flight tests, one of its most visible future applications draws steadily closer from vision to reality. SpaceShipTwo, the suborbital passenger craft for which tickets are currently billed at around $200,000 per seat, has completed no fewer than 18 glide tests between October 2010 and the end of last month. Its maiden voyage into space is tentatively scheduled for late 2013 and its fully operational form it will transport two pilots and up to six passengers into the low thermosphere, reaching a peak altitude of around 68 miles (110 km). This will neatly exceed the 62 mile (100 km) ‘Kármán Line’ – the FAI-accepted boundary between the upper atmosphere and outer space.
To date, Virgin Galactic has ordered five SpaceShipTwos, of which two have been completed: the ‘Enterprise’ and the ‘Voyager’. Both will be air-launched by WhiteKnightTwo and after separation their hybrid rocket engines will propel them to a maximum velocity of 2,600 mph (4,200 km/h). Average flight duration from takeoff until landing will be a couple of hours, with the well-heeled passengers experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness in SpaceShipTwo’s cabin. Upon their return to Earth, their passports will receive unique ‘spaceflight stamps’.
Testing of SpaceShipTwo in the last two years has gone relatively smoothly, despite a number of technical glitches. On one occasion, the craft failed to separate from the WhiteKnightTwo and in September 2011 its ‘feathered’ re-entry system – in which the wings rotate 90 degrees upward, creating a shuttlecock effect, to generate greater aerodynamic drag and lessen thermal loads – was satisfactorily tested when the pilots briefly lost control during a glide test. Control was re-established after SpaceShipTwo entered its feathered configuration and it landed safely. Last month, Scaled Composites received FAA permission to begin rocket-powered supersonic testing.
“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionise the way we get to space,” said Sir Richard. “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.”