LauncherOne.Two: Decoding Virgin Galacticese

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

I was pleased to find myself mentioned in the most recent edition of Charles Lurio’s The Lurio Report (subscription only). He referenced a post I wrote in July about  Virgin Galactic moving to a larger launch vehicle (dubbed LauncherTwo by sources) that would be launched from a modified 747 instead of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Lurio spoke with Virgin Galactic Vice President of Special Projects Will Pomerantz in a valiant if not entirely successful attempt to clarify what the heck’s going on with the project. Alas, it wasn’t really Charles’ fault; the answers he received were not real clear.

Here’s the relevant section from The Lurio Report.

Launch Plans – At the time of the June announcement, Virgin Galactic said that its LauncherOne system would deploy 39 OneWeb satellites, with options for up to another 100.  They spoke of launching between one and three of the satellites per flight.  Drawing from various sources, comments and his own analysis, Doug Messier wrote an item discussing the possibility that Virgin would use a larger “LauncherTwo.”

But the company’s Will Pomerantz told him that they were focussing on LauncherOne.  Pomerantz didn’t mention a LauncherTwo in communications with me either, while acknowledging that LauncherOne development had pursued several options.  But he said that, “We’ve been working hard on one specific ‘avenue’ for quite a while now–all of the hardware testing, facilities set up, et cetera that we’ve been doing supports that particular avenue.  We’ll be saying much more about it pretty soon, with details, user guides, et cetera.”  He added that after the OneWeb announcement they’d gotten “terrific” customer feedback about LauncherOne, which also helped them understand the market for small satellite launch.

OK, so let’s take this one piece at a time.

They spoke of launching between one and three of the satellites per flight.  Drawing from various sources, comments and his own analysis, Doug Messier wrote an item discussing the possibility that Virgin would use a larger “LauncherTwo.”

The math on this is pretty straightforward. Given the size of the OneWeb payloads (~125 kg), the stated launch capacity of LauncherOne (~225 kg) to low Earth orbit (LEO), and the need to reach a 1,200 km orbit (higher than a typical LEO orbit), Virgin Galactic will need a much more capable launch vehicle to lift up to three satellites at a time. Unless, of course, there was some rather considerable reduction in satellite size and weight.

But the company’s Will Pomerantz told him that they were focussing on LauncherOne.  Pomerantz didn’t mention a LauncherTwo in communications with me either while acknowledging that LauncherOne development had pursued several options. But he said that, “We’ve been working hard on one specific ‘avenue’ for quite a while now–all of the hardware testing, facilities set up, et cetera that we’ve been doing supports that particular avenue.

Sources say Virgin Galactic has opted to continue calling the project “LauncherOne” even though the actual launch vehicle they previous publicized has been essentially shelved in favor of a much more capable system.  Hence, the acknowledgement that “LauncherOne development had pursued several options.”

As I reported, the enlarged rocket (let’s call it LauncherOne.Two) will require new engines, specifically the NewtonThree and NewtonFour liquid bi-prop engines.  Virgin Galactic had previously developed the smaller NewtonOne and NewtonTwo engines for LauncherOne.

Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)
Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)

Pomerantz confirmed the use of NewtonThree and NewtonFour engines on the launch vehicle in an story published by Aviation Week. He spoke of the NewtonOne and NewtonTwo as being prototypes for the larger engines.

NewtonThree and NewFour require a fair amount of development. The smaller NewtonOne and NewtonTwo had been developed under Vice President of Propulsion Tom Markusic before he left Virgin Galactic at the end of 2013. A number of engineers followed him out the door.

There was then a period that lasted for much of 2014 during which there wasn’t a lot of progress on LauncherOne or its engines. During this period, the company had a laser-like focus on completing flight tests of SpaceShipTwo and getting the vehicle into commercial service. It was also in talks during part of the year with Google about the Internet giant taking over the project. Nothing came of those discussions.

Virgin Galactic renewed its focus on LauncherOne in a major way after the first SpaceShipTwo crashed on Oct. 31, 2014. The Virgin Group’s involvement in OneWeb was announced in January 2015. Virgin Galactic unveiled a facility in Long Beach, Calif., for LauncherOne production the following month. In June, Virgin Galactic received a contract to launch 39 OneWeb satellites with an option for 100 more.

We’ll be saying much more about it pretty soon, with details, user guides, et cetera.”

Soon is an appropriately vague word. So, when would an announcement be forthcoming?

First, Virgin Galactic will need some good tests of the Newton engines on the stand. No sense unveiling an upgraded launch vehicle without some cool engine hot fire videos to go with it.

Sir Richard Branson and designer Burt Rutan walk aside the Virgin Mothership "Eve" (VMS EVE) in Mojave, CA. on the eve of its official rollout on July 28, 2008.
Sir Richard Branson and designer Burt Rutan walk aside the Virgin Mothership “Eve”
(VMS EVE) in Mojave, CA. on the eve of its official rollout on July 28, 2008.

Richard Branson has often used anniversaries for big Virgin Galactic announcements. For example, WhiteKnightTwo was unveiled in Mojave in July 2008, a year and two days after a test stand accident killed three Scaled Composites employees.

WhiteKnightTwo wasn’t anywhere close to being finished; it would not fly until December. But, rolling it out there limited media attention on the deaths that had occurred at the test stand and demonstrated progress on recovery.

Virgin Galactic brought 300 ticket holders to Mojave in late September 2013, close to the 9th anniversaries of the announcement of Virgin Galactic on Sept. 27, 2004, and SpaceShipOne winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize with flights on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4 of that same year. Branson promised flights to space within months.

A majority of Virgin Galactic's future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
A majority of Virgin Galactic’s future Astronauts gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. AT side is the WhiteKnight2 mated with SpaceShip2. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The British mogul also attended the X Prize Foundation’s 10th anniversary celebration of the Ansari X Prize in Mojave last year. He once again promising flights would begin soon.

The eleventh anniversaries of Virgin Galactic’s announcement and the Ansari X Prize winning flights are coming up in a few weeks. So, perhaps they will unveil something about the new and improved LauncherOne.Two around these dates.

Another much sadder anniversary is Oct. 31, which will mark one year since the loss of   SpaceShipTwo and the death of Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury.  It’s not known how Virgin Galactic will mark that anniversary.

Honoring the dead: memorial plaques at Legacy Park (Cedit: Douglas Messier)
Honoring the dead: memorial plaques at Legacy Park (Cedit: Douglas Messier)

I expect that Scaled Composites will be the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Alsbury at the Mojave spaceport’s Legacy Park. The company placed a plaque there for the three engineers killed in 2007 to mark the first anniversary of their deaths.

He added that after the OneWeb announcement they’d gotten “terrific” customer feedback about LauncherOne, which also helped them understand the market for small satellite launch.

I’m sure that’s true. The larger launch vehicle does open up opportunities to launch a wider range of satellites.

Now, all these have to do is go build it. I hope they succeed. The smallsat industry needs some dedicated launchers.

The launch vehicle is probably even more important to Virgin Galactic given the difficulties the company has had with SpaceShipTwo.  I’m guessing LauncherOne.Two is really crucial to the company’s future.