Tycoon unveils rocket plans
LOS ANGELES – British billionaire Richard Branson and his space company Virgin Galactic unveiled plans to build a rocket designed to be launched in midair and then deliver small satellites into orbit for a fraction of today’s launch prices.
LauncherOne will be a two-stage rocket capable of carrying satellites that can weigh as much as 500 pounds into orbit for less than $10 million, Branson said. The new vehicle’s first commercial flight is scheduled to take place by 2016.
Virgin Galactic makes its spaceships in Mojave, where the crafts are undergoing test flights. The company also aims to launch paying customers into suborbital space as early as next year.
Branson also announced that four private companies have put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to buy several dozen launches.
Virgin Galactic’s way of getting to space is a bit different from previous ground-launched systems.
Instead of launching a satellite directly into space with a rocket, Virgin Galactic plans to do the following: A rocket tipped with a satellite will be attached to the wings of a White Knight aircraft – which resembles a massive flying catamaran because each has two fuselages – flown to 50,000 feet and dropped like a bomb.
LauncherOne will free fall for about four seconds before the rocket’s first stage ignites and propels the satellite into space. The satellite will then be jettisoned and taken to a designated low-Earth orbit.