Virgin Galactic Focused on Larger Satellite Launch Vehicle

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Artist’s conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic is developing a rocket more powerful than LauncherOne to fulfill a recent order for 39 launches from its global satellite Internet partner OneWeb, according to sources familiar with the program.

LauncherTwo will use Virgin Galactic’s largest liquid fuel engine, NewtonThree, in its first stage, according to sources that insisted upon anonymity. A new engine, NewtonFour, will be developed for the second stage.

LauncherTwo will be too heavy for Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, which is designed to air launch SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne. The larger rocket will be carried aloft by a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, sources said.

Meanwhile, LauncherOne and its two engines, NewtonOne and NewtonTwo, have been shelved, the sources reported.

In an email to Parabolic Arc, Virgin Galactic Vice President for Special Projects Will Pomerantz said the company is continuing to develop LauncherOne. He did not comment on the reports about LauncherTwo.

As we’ve learned from the SS2 side, it can be a balancing act trying to respond to people’s interest in our programs without encouraging speculation and setting unintended expectations. So for now, I’ll just say that we’ve got our eyes focused on execution of LauncherOne and finishing the new spaceship. We’re happy to have all the funding we need, a great and growing team, and the support of our customers on both the human spaceflight and the satellite launch side. We’ll be ready to share the latest updates on both programs in a few months.  Please be patient, and thanks for your interest.

Pomerantz also confirmed reports that a Virgin Galactic rocket engine recently exploded on the test stand at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

I will say that we did recently have a hard start on one of our tests for a LauncherOne engine, but as you know that is pretty typical in liquid engine development. The test team did a great job of learning what they needed to learn and we’re now back out on both of our liquid test stands.

Sources claim that it was a NewtonThree engine that exploded on June 30. The engine was destroyed and the test stand damaged, they said.

OneWeb plans to place a constellation of 648 satellites into 1,200 km (745.6 mile) high orbits to provide global Internet services. The Virgin Group has invested in OneWeb, with Virgin Chairman Richard Branson serving on the company’s board.

OneWeb has awarded 39 launches to Virgin Galactic with an option for 100 more. Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides told Space News that each LauncherOne mission would carry between one and three satellites depending upon the capacity of the company’s launch vehicle, the weight of the satellite, and the specific orbit required.

However, that plan appears to create a mismatch between the weight of the spacecraft and LauncherOne’s payload capacity.

OneWeb satellites will weigh about 125 kg (275.6 lb) apiece. LauncherOne will be capable of placing payloads weighing up to 225 kg (496 lb) into low Earth orbit for a cost of less than $10 million, according to Virgin Galactic.

Thus, LauncherOne would  be capable of launching a single OneWeb satellite at a time unless the weight of the spacecraft is reduced or the capacity of the rocket is increased.

The 1,200 km (745.6 mile) orbit for the OneWeb satellites is higher than a typical low Earth orbit. It’s likely that LauncherOne would be able to loft less payload to that higher orbit.

Launching one satellite at a time could be an expensive proposition. For example, if LauncherOne was to cost $7 million per flight, OneWeb would spent $273 million to launch 39 satellites in a constellation of 648 spacecraft.

OneWeb also has placed an order for 21 Soyuz launches, which will carry 32 to 36 satellites at a time. OneWeb has not disclosed the cost of each Soyuz launch, but it will be well below the cost of 39 LauncherOne flights for a similar number of spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic has talked about LauncherTwo on occasion without providing any details. Branson mentioned the rocket briefly in January during an interview with BBC News about the OneWeb project.

Virgin Galactic’s satellite launch program has had a long and bumpy history during which periods of activity were followed by lulls. Along the way, some key personnel have departed the program. Throughout, the launcher has taken a back seat to the much more glamorous SpaceShipTwo, which will carry tourists on suborbital hops.

In 2009, Aabar Investments — a sovereign wealthy fund of the Gulf nation of Abu Dhabi — invested $280 million in Virgin Galactic. Aabar offered the company an additional investment of $110 million when it came up with a credible plan for developing LauncherOne.

That same year, Virgin Galactic hired Adam Baker away from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited to manage the program. However, he left the company the following year, after which Virgin Galactic announced a slow down in the program.

In July 2012, Branson re-launched the LauncherOne program amid much fanfare at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. The British billionaire announced a list of customers for the launch vehicle that included Skybox Imaging, Spaceflight Services, Planetary Resources and GeoOptics.

The LauncherOne program made good progress in the 17 months that followed. Under Vice President of Propulsion Tom Markusic, engineers developed three new engines: NewtonOne, NewtonTwo and NewtonThree.

The first two engines were designed for LauncherOne. NewtonThree was sized to replace the troubled hybrid motor that powers SpaceShipTwo, according to sources. However, officials decided against making the change.

Markusic left Virgin Galactic at the end of 2013. He was followed by a number of engineers. The departures slowed progress on LauncherOne throughout 2014, sources say. Virgin Galactic also was preoccupied with flights tests of SpaceShipTwo during this period.

Reliable reports surfaced during 2014 that Virgin Galactic was in negotiations with search giant Google. Under the deal, Google would make an equity investment in Branson’s space company and also take over development of LauncherOne.  No agreement was reached.

Virgin Galactic renewed its focus on LauncherOne following the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. The company subsequently announced the leasing of a facility in Long Beach, Calif., where LauncherOne vehicles would be built. Virgin Galactic also ramped up hiring for the program.

OneWeb announced its plans for global satellite Internet services and the Virgin Group’s involvement in January 2015. OneWeb announced a $500 million round of funding and orders for satellite production and launches in June.