Virgin Galactic Developing Small-satellite Launcher

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Virgin Galactic’s announcement that it will develop an unmanned rocket to carry small satellites into orbit was greeted with guarded optimism by several companies in the new venture’s target market.

The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft Virgin Galactic built to carry SpaceShipTwo into the atmosphere before it is released to climb to suborbital space will be used to carry the new rocket, called LauncherOne. The two-stage rocket is designed to carry satellite payloads weighing between 100 and 225 kilograms into low Earth orbit beginning in 2016.

Funding of the rocket’s development to date has come mainly from Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which in 2009 announced it was investing $280 million in Virgin Galactic with the aim of expanding into the satellite launch business.

LauncherOne initially will be operated only from U.S. territory as technology export restrictions will make it difficult for it to be operated elsewhere. Virgin Galactic said the launch of a satellite would cost less than $10 million.

An official from one company that develops small satellites said he would reserve judgment on LauncherOne until a more-detailed price chart is published. “A price of $10 million for a 200-kilogram satellite is not bad, but it’s not great,” this official said. “But given the current state of the market, any operator entering it is good news.”

An official with another small-satellite builder anticipates prices falling once LauncherOne is operating regularly.

LauncherOne’s payload compartment will measure 1 meter in diameter, with a 77-centimeter cylindrical section topped off by a conical section above.

Virgin Galactic has hired Sierra Nevada Space Systems of the United States and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain to develop satellite designs optimized for the LauncherOne compartment.

The company said it had already booked customers for LauncherOne including Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, Calif., a startup provider of Earth observation services that earlier this year announced it had raised $91 million in venture capital.

GeoOptics Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., which is designing an environment-monitoring system using small satellites carrying GPS radio-occultation sensors, also has signed on for LauncherOne, as has Spaceflight Inc. of Tukwila, Wash., which is developing a propulsion unit to host and deploy small satellites in orbit.

Planetary Resources Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., a startup created by several well-known American billionaires with the goal of mining asteroids, said it will use LauncherOne to orbit the company’s Arkyd-100 space telescopes.

All four of these companies have placed deposits of undisclosed value for LauncherOne flights, Virgin Galactic said.