Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne on Schedule for 2016 First Launch

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic is on schedule to begin flights of its small-satellite launch vehicle by the end of 2016, hoping to tap into what the company’s chief executive believes is a lucrative and growing market.

In a speech at the Satellite 2015 conference here, George Whitesides said the success of some small-satellite ventures in recent years, and the emergence of a number of new ones planning in some cases hundreds of satellites, offered a promising market for his company.

“There’s several key trends converging now in the small space sector that have the potential to reshape our industry,” he said. Those trends include an “insatiable demand” for communications and other data services, the application of mass production techniques to small satellites, and an influx of funding into the industry.

That potential, he argued, can’t be fully realized if companies have to rely on secondary payload accommodations on other launches or deployment from the International Space Station, as many smallsats are currently launched. “With those secondary opportunities, you hardly get any choice of where and when you can fly,” he said.

Whitesides hopes that Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, first announced in 2012, can solve that by providing dedicated launches of small satellites, weighing up to about 225 kilograms, for less than $10 million. “As time has gone by, I’ve only gotten more and more excited about it,” he said.

Newton 3 hot-fire test
Newton 3 hot-fire test. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The company recently started hot-fire tests of an engine called Newton 3 developed by Virgin Galactic for the first stage of LauncherOne, Whitesides said. That engine, capable of generating 265,000 to 335,000 newtons of thrust, uses liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants.

“We’re now to the point where we’re very confident that we can build a very affordable rocket,” Whitesides said. After his speech, he said the company was on schedule to begin flights by the end of 2016, with even initial test flights likely carrying some satellites.

When Virgin Galactic unveiled LauncherOne in July 2012, the company announced several initial customers, including Skybox Imaging, GeoOptics, Spaceflight, Inc. and Planetary Resources. The company has signed up several additional customers since then, Whitesides said, but has not disclosed them publicly.

Virgin Galactic has also moved LauncherOne operations from the company’s main facility in Mojave, California, to a new one in Long Beach, California, that the company announced in February. In addition to existing staff that moved to Long Beach, a job fair held March 7 at the Long Beach site attracted between 5,000 and 6,000 job applicants, Whitesides said, seeking about 100 open positions.

The decision to move LauncherOne work to Long Beach was based on a desire to access a larger potential workforce than possible in Mojave, a small town about 150 kilometers from Los Angeles. Unlike the development of SpaceShipTwo, which was done in conjunction with Scaled Composites in Mojave, Whitesides said Virgin Galactic was free with LauncherOne to find other locations in southern California with a larger pool of qualified workers to draw from.

Work continues on Mojave on a second SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, replacing the one lost in a fatal crash in October 2014. “We’re probably as much as 90-percent structurally complete” on that vehicle, he said, although he said there were “several months” of work remaining on the vehicle’s other systems before flight tests could begin.

That work is in progress even as the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation into the accident. “We’re a party in the investigation, so we can get a sense of what their findings are and, to the extent any are safety-related, we can act on them before the report comes out,” he said, adding that he could not discuss any specific steps while the investigation is ongoing.