Richard Branson holds a replica of LauncherOne at the Farnborough International… (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated…)
British billionaire Richard Branson and his space company Virgin Galactic unveiled plans to build a new air-launched rocket designed to deliver small satellites into orbit for a fraction of today’s price.
LauncherOne will be a two-stage rocket capable of carrying up to 500-pound satellites into orbit for prices below $10 million, Branson said. The new vehicle’s first commercial flight is scheduled to blast off by 2016.
Virgin Galactic makes its spaceships in Mojave, where the crafts are currently undergoing test flights. The company also aims to launch paying customers into sub-orbital space as early as next year.
“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space,” Branson said Wednesday at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. “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.”
Branson also announced four private companies have already put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to purchase a total of several dozen launches.
Virgin Galactic’s way of getting to space is a bit different than previous launch systems.
Instead of launching a satellite directly into space with a rocket, Virgin Galactic plans to do the following: A rocket tipped with a satellite will be attached to the wings of a White Knight aircraft -- which resembles a massive flying catamaran because each has two fuselages -- flown to 50,000 feet and dropped like a bomb.
LauncherOne will free fall for approximately four seconds before the first stage ignites and propel the satellite into space. The satellite will then jettison and be delivered to a designated low-earth orbit.
See how it works in the video below or here.
“Small satellite launch is an area ripe for disruption,” said Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides in a statement . “Miniaturized satellite components and constrained budgets are driving commercial clients, academic users and government agencies all to clamor for an affordable, dedicated launch vehicle.”
But with these lofty goals, Virgin Galactic still needs to prove its systems will work. It hopes to have its first rocket powered test flight on the passenger-carrying space ship, called SpaceShipTwo, by year’s end.
The company said it has taken reservations and deposits from more than 529 people ready to make the trip from the company's spaceport in New Mexico. That’s a number greater than the total count of people who have been to space throughout human history.
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