OneWeb Contract A Milestone For Virgin Galactic’s Smallsat Launch Effort

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s deal for 39 launches of OneWeb satellites is the company’s first contract for its LauncherOne system, its chief executive said June 25.

“This is the first contract we’ve publicly announced,” George Whitesides said in an interview. “We’re negotiating several other firm contracts right now, but this is the first one. You can see why we wanted to start big.”

The contract covers 39 launches of OneWeb satellites using LauncherOne, a small air-launched vehicle the company is developing, with an option for up to 100 additional launches. Those initial 39 launches will take place “roughly over the next five years,” Whitesides said.

Each LauncherOne mission will be able to carry between one and three OneWeb satellites, he said. The exact number will depend on the final satellite configuration, the launch vehicle’s capacity, and the orbits the satellites will go to.

OneWeb will launch the bulk of its constellation using Soyuz launches provided by Arianespace. LauncherOne will instead deploy individual satellites to fill gaps in the overall system. “Part of the point of our system is that we’re able to provide responsive launch to serve specific needs that they have in their constellation,” Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic announced plans to develop LauncherOne in July 2012. The two-stage vehicle, launched from the company’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, is designed to place payloads weighing up to 225 kilograms into low Earth orbit. While the value of the OneWeb contract was not disclosed, the company previously said the price of a LauncherOne mission would be less than $10 million.

LauncherOne is currently under development, primarily at a new factory Virgin Galactic opened earlier this year in Long Beach, California, that employs 120 people. Testing of the rocket’s liquid-propellant engines is in progress at the company’s primary facility in Mojave, California.

Whitesides said Virgin Galactic is targeting an early 2017 first launch for LauncherOne, but added it could take place “a little earlier.” Those initial test launches will probably carry commercial payloads, he said. “We’ve had a lot of interest about that, so I would expect we’ll have some customers on our test flights.”

The LauncherOne work is largely separate from the project Virgin Galactic is best known for, the SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft. The first SpaceShipTwo vehicle crashed during a test flight in October 2014, killing one of the two pilots on board. While the investigation into the accident continues, the company has been building a second SpaceShipTwo.

“We’re making great progress, working three shifts on it,” Whitesides said of the SpaceShipTwo under construction. In May, the vehicle rested on its landing gear for the first time, and he said the company is working on the “nuts and bolts” of completing the vehicle, with flight tests of the vehicle still on schedule to begin later this year.