Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Virgin Galactic Announces Improvements to its LauncherOne Rocket

A rendering of the LauncherOne in space. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic has announced that it is improving its LauncherOne rocket so that it can carry bigger payloads to space and help the company compete for another line of work: launching small satellites. The company claims it has nearly doubled the amount of payload that customers can deliver to orbit on its LauncherOne system – ranging from 200 kg into the standard Sun-Synchronous Orbit, or 400 kg to low Earth orbit (LEO) – for less than $10 million. Virgin Galactic also revealed that it is now in the process of acquiring its own dedicated carrier aircraft for the system.

“After many customers came to us asking for a more capable vehicle, we decided to give them exactly what they wanted,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release.

“When we initially announced LauncherOne, we pledged that customers would be able to launch about 120 kg to a standard Sun-Synchronous Orbit for less than US $10 million. Now, we are proud to offer customers the ability to launch 200 kg to the same orbit for that same amount. If customers desire additional capacity or services, they can also choose to purchase those,” the company added.

The LauncherOne rocket can be launched from a wide range of possible locations, tailored to individual mission requirements and weather conditions.

Once released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket fires up its single main stage engine, a 73,500 lbf, LOX/RP-1 rocket engine called the “NewtonThree.” Typically, this engine will fire for approximately three minutes. After stage separation, the single upper stage engine, a 5,000 lbf LOX/RP-1 rocket engine called the “NewtonFour” will carry the satellite(s) into orbit. Typically, the second stage will execute multiple burns totaling nearly six minutes. Both the NewtonThree and the NewtonFour are highly reliable liquid rocket engines designed, tested, and built by Virgin Galactic.

At the end of this sequence, LauncherOne will deploy our customers’ satellite (or satellites) into their desired orbit. Both stages of LauncherOne will be safely deorbited, while the carrier aircraft will return to a predetermined airport, where it can be quickly prepared for its next flight.

At the time of the announcement the company revealed contracts had already signed for payloads to be delivered by the system – along with what the company claimed were several dozen other interested parties.

While known mostly for its ambitions to fly tourists into space, Virgin Galactic’s move to increase its rocket payload shows how it is also attacking the lucrative satellite launch business. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company, also announced Monday that it was awarded two commercial launch contracts recently, bringing its total launch manifest to 60 launches.

Test flights of LauncherOne are scheduled to begin in 2017.

Credit: virgingalactic.com

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