While Virgin Galactic prepare to restart test operations with its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the company has revealed an ambitious future for its LauncherOne system – including a home base in California that is currently “too big” for their needs, but will allow for the expectation for dozens of missions per year. LauncherOne will be tasked with a multi-orbit, multi-payload ride for numerous small satellites via its air-launch system.
LauncherOne was initially revealed in 2012 as a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (225 kilograms) to orbit for prices below $10 million. The rocket was to be launched via its White Knight carrier aircraft under the initial proposal.
The White Knight will now focus on lofting SpaceShipTwo, a spacecraft mainly tasked with suborbital space tourism.
Led by a vehicle called Unity, SpaceShipTwo is aiming to complete a test program that suffered a tragic blow during the 2014 test flight failure that claimed the life of Michael Alsbury.
“We’re (aiming to be) the world’s first commercial spaceline. We’ve unveiled our new vehicle, Spaceship Unity, which is now into integrated ground testing at Mojave, ahead of flight tests in the relatively near future,” noted William Pomerantz, Vice President, Special Projects at Virgin Galactic.
“But that’s only a half of what our company does.”
The other half involves LauncherOne, a rocket can be launched from a wide range of possible locations via its 747 carrier aircraft, locations tailored to individual mission requirements and weather conditions.
The idea was formed back as early as 2007, although they were only “sketches on napkins” at that time. It took “a large tranche of private investment” to push the idea off the napkins and into a full blown project in 2012.
“What we’re about at Virgin Galactic is throwing open the doors to space as widely as we possibly can,” added Mr. Pomerantz at the recent Space Tech Expo event. “We see our role as complementary to companies that are building rockets that will go further, fly faster and carry heavier payloads. We’re looking to bring down the absolute cost.”
Speaking of the differences between its SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne projects, Mr. Pomerantz noted that they partnered with Scaled Composites for the space tourism test program that began with SS1, whereas the effort with LauncherOne has been almost entirely in-house.
Virgin Galactic has already acquired the carrier aircraft – a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 series passenger plane – which is being refitted to provide the role of carrying the LauncherOne rocket to its air launch altitude.
Located at Virgin Galactic’s San Antonio facility, “Cosmic Girl” is being prepared to enter operations in late 2017.
The aircraft was operated by sister company Virgin Atlantic, which allowed for an “honest sales person” to provide a full insight into her service history. The aircraft is relatively young, meaning she is expected to be in service with Virgin Galactic for a “long time”.
The switch from using the WhiteKnightTwo carrier to Cosmic Girl for LauncherOne provides numerous advantages.
Prior to the switch, it was understood that LauncherOne on White Knight Two would have achieved a payload range between 100 – 300 kgs to polar/sun-synchronous or equatorial orbits, respectively, for roughly $10 million (USD).
However, the switch to a 747-400 aircraft launch system has allowed Virgin Galactic to modify the LauncherOne rocket to increase the system’s performance.
With Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne will be capable of placing a 300 kg payload into a sun-synchronous orbit and a 450 kg payload into an equatorial orbit – all for the same rough price of $10 million (USD).
Moreover, the switch to Cosmic Girl means that LauncherOne will enjoy the ability to launch polar and sun-synchronous missions from approximately 80.4 km (50 miles) off the west coast of Los Angeles, California, and a similar distance off the east coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, for equatorial missions.
This increase in capability was a major thread of Mr. Pomerantz’s address, which pointed to a large demand for Virgin Galactic’s Air Launch options.
“We at Virgin Galactic are huge believers in the value of Air Launch as an incredible asset to customers for a pretty wide variety of missions.
“By beginning your mission by not standing on a pad, but being under the wing of an aircraft, you may be adding some complexity in some ways but you add a lot of performance and certainly a lot of flexibility.”
That flexibility includes being able to match the ignition point to the exact orbital parameters, while being able to avoid some of the constraints of unacceptable weather conditions, issues with the launch pad, and even some constraints of the range – such as the infamous “boat in the range box” problem.
Of course, already being at 35,000 feet, LauncherOne is above the majority of the atmosphere that it would normally have to thrust through during traditional first stage flight.
“That both lessens the amount of friction, reduces the total amount of propellant (usually required), but also allows certain technology decisions to optimize design for the way it performs in space,” Mr. Pomerantz added.
The LauncherOne rocket is being designed “tip to tail” at Virgin Galatic’s Long Beach facility, an in-house effort that includes the rocket’s propulsion system.
Mr. Pomerantz noted the company did look at purchasing the propulsion system from another company – via not wanting to become a rocket engine development company “if we didn’t have to”.
However, due to the cost, supply chain and potential reliability issues of externally purchasing engines, the company decided to build its own family of rocket engines.
The first stage of the LauncherOne is the NewtonThree (N3) engine, which is a 73,500 lbf engine running with RP-1 and LOX. The second stage utilizes the NewtownFour (N4) engine that sports 5,000 lbf of vacuum thrust.
Testing of the pathfinder engines began in 2013, with test fires taking place for both the N3 and N4.
Testing is continuing, with one of the more recent static fires shown in a video tweeted by Virgin Galactic this week.
“We’ve developed a whole family of LOX/Kerosene rocket engines we call Newton,” noted Mr. Pomerantz. “It seemed kinda odd to us no one had named an engine after Sir Isacc Newton, so we took that name and used it for all of the engines in the family.”
“We are a small satellite launch vehicle designed to launch CubeSats, though not just CubeSats, but our technical ability is to launch 300 kgs into a high altitude sun-synchronous orbit, which is the orbit that seems to be of greatest interest to our customers.
“We can also go to other orbits, which is the advantage of a flying launch site in the form of a 747.”
While initially skeptical about the demand in the small satellite business, Mr. Pomerantz noted that once he investigated the industry he became a believer in its growth potential.
That has been realized by Virgin Galactic via its new Long Beach facility, which is designed to cater not just for the initial demand, but future expectations.
“In March of last year, we moved to a new facility that’s located in Long Beach, California – in a district that used to produce an aircraft every two hours. That’s a great inspiration to us.
“It’s a big facility, it’s 150,000 square feet of manufacturing space in addition to 30,000 square feet of offices. That’s too big for what we need right now, but it’s sized for what we’ll need in about a year and a half’s time.”
Part of the rationale behind the move was the preference against moving into a facility and then having to move again shortly after when demand required, along with the expected production of “dozens” of LauncherOne units per year.
“We really thought about the manufacturability of this rocket from day one. What we didn’t want to do was to design a rocket, sprint to the first flight and have that succeed or fail and then ask how to build the next one.
“We wanted to bake manufacturability into the cake, as it were, because we think that’s key to keeping the price low and the flight rate’s high.”
The company has been aided by an expert from the automotive industry who has been guiding the build-up of the facility, such as the range of machinery that is already being installed into the workspace.
Virgin Galactic is also conducting technology testing on items such as the Autonomous Flight Safety System and the rocket’s “linerless composite tanks”. Mr. Pomerantz noted he was not at liberty to share those details at this time.
However, he did close by noting LauncherOne is “open for business” and that they’ve already sold out their test flight program in late 2017. The company is also making good progress on the sales for the early years of operation.
Commercial operations are expected to begin in 2018.
(Images Virgin Galactic, SpaceTechExpo, Derrick Stamos for NSF (L2) and Nate Moeller for NSF (L2) and astro95media.com.)
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