Report: Virgin Galactic Revives Air-Launch Satellite Project


Space.com
reports that Virgin Galactic has revived a plan to use its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to launch small satellites into orbit using a rocket in the place of SpaceShipTwo.

The project, which was originally announced as LauncherOne in July 2009, appeared to fade after the engineer hired to oversee it abruptly left the company. However, it has been revived, at least partially with the help of DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. Space.com reports that Virgin Galactic has won an 18-month study contract under the initiative, which is aimed at placing a 100-pound (45-kilogram) satellite into orbit for less than $1 million.

According to Avionics Intelligence, DARPA has also awarded ALASA contracts to:

  • Lockheed Martin Corp., Palmdale, Calif.: $6.2 million
  • Boeing, Huntington Beach, Calif., $4.5 million
  • Northrup Grumman, El Segundo, Calif., $2.3 million
  • Space Information Laboratories LLC, Santa Maria, Calif., $1.9 million for GPS metric track, autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) and space-based range to reduce range launch cost.
  • Ventions LLC, San Francisco, Calif., $969,396.

Space.com reports that the revived launcher program, re-branded Virgin Galactic Cargo, “could see an unmanned rocket, air launched by SS2’s carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), carry satellites weighing up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit for a price tag of $1 million to $2 million.”

Virgin Galactic will hold a press conference and project update on July 11 at the Farnsborough Air Show in England at which Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson and top company managers will be present.

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