(Sen) - Virgin Galactic is to go into the satellite launching business as a parallel operation to tourist trips, Sir Richard Branson confirmed yesterday.
Payloads up to 225 kg (500 lb) in weight will be sent into orbit as early as in 2016 by an air-launcher that will be flown attached to WhiteKnightTwo.
This is the same twin-hulled aircraft that will lift fare-paying passengers aloft inside SpaceShipTwo before that is dropped free and rockets to the final frontier.
A full-sized replica of SpaceShipTwo was unveiled this week at the Farnborough Air Show where hundreds of wannabe astronauts gathered for lunch with Sir Richard yesterday.
They included Sen's intrepid founder Charles Black who, like everyone else, has put down a $20,000 deposit to become one of the first people on Earth to experience a spaceflight.
Sir Richard said that 529 people have now put down deposits towards their $200,000 sub-orbital flights - a figure that was greater than the number of astronauts who have already gone into orbit since the dawn of the space age.
Powered test flights are due to begin later this year following successful unpowered tests so far.
Substantial funding has already been raised from Virgin Galactic’s partner aabar Investments PJS. Satellites will be carried by a two-stage rocket module called LauncherOne that has been specially designed to carry small satellites at a cost of $10 million a launch - cheap in space terms.
Two world leaders in the manufacture of small satellites, Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems have said they will create new satellite designs that will be ideal for carrying by Virgin.
Virgin Galactic already have the backing of several private companies. Launch customers will include Skybox Imaging, GeoOptics Inc, Spaceflight Inc and the recently announced asteroid-mining venture Planetary Resources Inc.
At first glance one might wonder how a small-satellite launch system could help a company that wants to fly to asteroids and plunder their resources. But Virgin's offering is apparently ideal for Planetary Resources' project to put several small space telescopes of a type called Arkyd-100 Series into orbit to search for previously undetected asteroids.
An impression of LauncherOne releasing a satellite. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Co-founder Eric Anderson said: "We are excited to announce this agreement with Virgin Galactic. LauncherOne has the potential to provide reliable and continuous launch service capability for small payloads. I expect Planetary Resources will launch several constellations of Arkyd-100 Series spacecraft in the coming years aboard LauncherOne."
The new launch system looks remarkably similar to one announced last year, Stratolaunch Systems, that is being designed by Microsoft founder and billionaire Paul G Allen to send spacecraft into orbit.
That jet plane will be basically a scaled-up version of the White KnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo configuration and is being developed by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites which designed the Virgin vehicles.
Sir Richard said: "Virgin Galactic's goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space. I'm immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo.
"Now, LauncherOne is bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies. It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably."