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Farnborough 2012 was characterised by shower clouds, air displays (the A380 is flying) and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.  Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Despite displays by and order annoucements for Airbus and Boeing aircraft, the Farnborough International Air Show was stolen yesterday.  The perpetrator was that master of showmanship Sir Richard Branson.  Surrounded by fans, clients and his close family,  Sir Richard announced that Virgin Galactic’s new satellite launch vehicle concept would go ahead.  In his press conference presentation Sir Richard noted that there was a “new race to space” going on and that it was the right to take advantage of this business opportunity.

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The scene-stealing Sir Richard joked that he wanted to overfly the Olympics with his WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combination.  Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

The LauncherOne, as the new two-stage expendable rocket is dubbed,  is designed to launch satellites into orbit after being air-dropped at 50,000 feet by the current jet powered Virgin Galactic carrier vehicle WhilteKnightTwo.  To achieve orbit, both stages of the LauncherOne vehicle will use LOx (liquid Oxygen)/Kerosene rocket propulsion and will be a pressure-fed design.  While pressure fed designs are not as powerful as the turbopump-injected equivalents, these rocket engines do have the benefit of being light.  

Further details on the engines are scarce.  Virgin Galactic’s Chief Technology Officer and former NASA rocket engineer, Steven Isokowitz, declined to give out data on the thrust or specific impulse of the rocket engines but noted that they would, in common with many of the rocket components, probably be made in house by Virgin Galactic’s own “SpaceShip Company”.  Isakowitz also noted that choice between ablative and regenerative cooling for the engines has not yet been finalised. During his presentation, Isakowitz further noted that the launch vehicle was part of a DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) design effort.  The LauncherOne vehicle is planned to being launching in 2016.

Working with Spaceflight Inc. which will coordinate and integrate small payloads, the booked launches will be for dedicated launches only.  The marketing advantage of this is that a customer wiil have the rocket all to themselves.  This avoids the potential of co-payload delays on shared flights.   Already launch orders from four customers (equivalent to some 36 launches) have been received.  Branson had claimed that the new orders represented the “largest order book of any new launcher in history.”   In addition to Spaceflight Inc., the clients included SkyBox imaging who plan to launch a constelaltion of imaging satellites, Geooptics Inc, who are planning a series of non-imaging remote sensing satellites, and Planetary Resources Inc which is an asteroid mining venture.

Small satellite manufacturers including Surrey Satellite Technology Limited are also coordinating their satellite designs with launching on the LauncherOne in mind

While Virgin Galactic changed its Briish part-time President and CEO (Will Whitehorn( to a US citizen (George Whitesides) for regulatory reasons concerned with ITAR (given the investment of Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi), nevertheless Sir Richard did not think that ITAR would be a problem in the future, either in marketing or operating the flights. . 

Virgin Galactic certainly forsees a market for the vehicle.  When asked if it was SpaceX’s withdrawal of the low cost Falcon 1 launch vehicle had left a gap in the market for Virgin Galactic to fill, Sir Richard agreed: 

“There is a gaping hole in small satellite launches. The only way to get up there is to get a small satellite up is to pay about $30 milliion on the back of a big satellite going up,” before adding:  “We can drop that price by about twenty million dollars to under $10 million,”    

Of course, the announcement of the launch vehicle was really not a new one.  Plans for a satellite launch operation were orignally discussed a few years ago, but these were shelved as the firm concentrated its resources on getting SpaceShipTwo’s flight control and rocket propulsion technology working reliably. 

The space tourism remains the main venture for Virgin Galactic as Sir Richard Branson revealed that the firm had taken 529 deposits to date.   George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic noted that all the components passed for flight and that after testing air dropped space tourism passenger flights should start taking place at the end of 2013. 

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Sam Branson, Sir Richard Branson and Holly Branson are to become astronauts together. Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Sir Richard Branson’s mother and children were at the press conference and lunch afterwards and he was not afraid to show a touching display of affection towards them.  This was a confidence boost to many since during his presentation, the 61-year-old businessman and adventurer, Sir Richard, noted that his son Sam, 30, and daughter Holly, 26, would be joining him on one of the flights into space late next year.

The recently-married Holly Branson who is a medical doctor by training and who admits to enjoying the thrills of rollercoasters, noted that she was very much looking forward to her space trip before confiding.  “I think maybe I will get slightly nervous when I get the exact date I am going up,”  Both Holly Branson and her father had noted that her brother Sam was more fearful than both of them. 

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Sir Richard Branson greets fans at Farnborough in front of a mock up of SpaceShipTwo. Courtesy: Flightglobal/David Todd

Of course, suborbital passenger flights and orbital satelllite launches are not the only business opportunites for Virgin Galactic  The firm has signed contracts with NASA and other research institutes to carry experiments for microgravity research on SpaceShipTwo.

 

 

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