On December 4th, Virgin Galactic announced that it will be entering the small satellite launch business! The Virgin approach seems to be all about airplanes; whether its their rocket-powered airplane, SpaceShip 1 and 2, or now with their airplane launched rocket, LauncherOne, this will be a new market using the means and the technology that they know the best.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic will supply a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl to Virgin Galactic to act as the dedicated launch vehicle for the LauncherOne rocket. The rocket will be mounted on the aircraft’s left wing in a wing mounting position, used for an optional fifth engine. At the launch altitude, the rocket will drop off of the wind, the rocket engines would engage and orient the LauncherOne to an orbital trajectory.
An Air launch gives a couple of distinct advantages. First, by essentially substituting a reusable launcher (Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl) for the first stage of a traditional ground-launched small sat rocket, a substantially less amount of rocket fuel is needed. The cost of a first stage structure is then removed from the cost of launch and what is needed is used most efficiently at higher altitudes with less air resistance. Secondly, the Boeing 747 can fly above and fire LauncherOne in the troposphere, thus avoiding unfavorable weather that cause many ground launches to be canceled. Combined, those benefits amount to significant savings and flexibility to traditional ground-launched rockets. Virgin Galactic announced in September that for less than $10 million, it could get 200kg to a sun-synchronous orbit with an option of up to 400kg.
So with the excitement and Sir Branson once again in the air, who out there needs a ride?