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Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic unveil plans for new rocket

Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic plan to build a rocket that will be launched in midair and then deliver small satellites into orbit.

July 12, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

British billionaire Richard Branson and his space company Virgin Galactic unveiled plans to build a rocket designed to be launched in midair and then deliver small satellites into orbit for a fraction of today's launch prices.

LauncherOne will be a two-stage rocket capable of carrying satellites that can weigh as much as 500 pounds into orbit for less than $10 million, Branson said. The new vehicle's first commercial flight is scheduled to take place by 2016.

Virgin Galactic makes its spaceships in Mojave, where the crafts are 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 that four private companies have put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to buy several dozen launches.

Virgin Galactic's way of getting to space is a bit different from previous ground-launched 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 about four seconds before the rocket's first stage ignites and propels the satellite into space. The satellite will then be jettisoned and taken to a designated low-Earth orbit.

The high-priced small-satellite launch market "is an area ripe for disruption," Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides, who is based in Pasadena, said 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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