Virgin Galactic Successfully Fires NewtonThree Engine

MOJAVE, Calif., September 28, 2015 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Successful test firings of key propulsion components marked the latest sign of progress for Virgin Galactic’s dedicated small satellite launch vehicle, LauncherOne. Working on custom-built test stands at the company’s Mojave, California location, Virgin Galactic engineers and technicians achieved longer duration, steady-state firings of LauncherOne’s main stage engine in the same week as multiple full duration firings of the gas generator for LauncherOne’s upper stage engine.

LauncherOne’s orbital flights are achieved using two rocket engines: a single 73,500 lbf thrust ‘NewtonThree’ main stage engine, and a single 5,000 lbf thrust ‘NewtonFour’ upper stage engine. Both the NewtonThree and the NewtonFour are highly reliable, pump-fed LOX/RP-1 liquid rocket engines designed, tested, and built by Virgin Galactic. Previously, Virgin Galactic completed successful test campaigns on pressure-fed demonstrator engines in each thrust class—the ‘NewtonOne’ and ‘NewtonTwo’ engines.

The latest successful test firing of the NewtonThree engine ran for more than 20 seconds, reaching steady-state operation and allowing the team to capture high quality data about the engine during start-up, operation, and safe shutdown. Within the same week, Virgin Galactic conducted multiple full-duration test firings of the NewtonFour gas generator, each exceeding six minutes in duration.

Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides said, “The Virgin Galactic propulsion team has made strong progress that keeps us on track for providing dedicated, responsive service for small satellite customers. We’re proud that the team is now among a small group of organizations that have fired a pump-fed rocket engine in this thrust class. There is much work yet to be done, but the NewtonThree and NewtonFour test results are strongly encouraging. Thanks to our team, our test stands, and our manufacturing facilities, we are making steady progress on all of the key components of LauncherOne.”

Both the NewtonThree and the NewtonFour engines are fed by turbopump assemblies designed in partnership with Barber Nichols Inc., a veteran designer and manufacturer that has previously made turbopumps for NASA, the U.S. military, and private industry. Barber Nichols President Dan Thoren said, “We congratulate Virgin Galactic on its recent hot fire tests. We love to see our partners succeed and are grateful to be trusted with the design and supply of the turbopump.”

Development on this engine is expected to continue over the coming months including testing of the full flight configuration.

LauncherOne is designed to provide affordable, reliable, and responsive orbital launches for small satellites. The company announced recently as part of World Business Satellite Week in Paris that for a price below US $10 million, LauncherOne will launch 200 kg into the high altitude Sun-Synchronous Orbits most commonly desired by small satellite missions, a marked increase from the system’s originally projected performance to that orbit. Customers will also be able purchase even further increases in performance to the same orbit, as well as launches that reach other altitudes or inclinations.

Editor’s Note: The NewtonOne and Newt0nTwo — which were to have originally powered LauncherOne — have been reclassified as “demonstrator engines.” And according to this update on Virgin Galactic’s website, the two smaller engines have been retired.  So, as I originally reported in July, the original LauncherOne has been essentially scrapped and replaced with a new booster, although the name remains the same.

  • savuporo

    Something useful might eventually still come out of VG, now that they are actually working on proper liquid biprops – more experience in rocketry in the industry is always good. Going with Barber Nichols was a good call too

  • Douglas Messier

    Tom Markusic left them with a good base of engine tech before he bailed at the end of 2013. It’s interesting the Virgin was trying to sell the tech and the team to Google. They were trying to dump something that after the SpaceShipTwo crash has become a bit of a lifeline.

  • Aerospike

    Hm, wikipedia states the original RocketMotorTwo as having 60,000 lbf (270 kN) thrust (the source for that number was a spaceflight101 article that is no longer available) and rumor has it that it is actually not powerful enough to get SpaceShipTwo over the Karman line.
    NewtonThree is said to have 73,500 lbf… I wonder if they consider switching SpaceShipTwo to liquid propulsion sometime down the road…

  • Snofru Chufu

    Implemention of the liquid prop (even if it is good idea) would require a substiantal redesign of SS2 (I would call it a SS3), which might not possible in regard to cost and shedule. BTW. thrust level is not the most important point, but delta-vee.

  • DavidR2015

    If NewtonOne produced 3,500 lbs of thrust, worked and was pressure fed, why didn’t VG just stick with pressure fed technology for NewtonFour, ie. just scale NewtonOne up a bit. Why move from pressure fed to pump fed when making a 5,000lbf thrust engine?
    Falcon 1 had a pump fed first stage engine and a pressure fed second stage engine. VG’s decision seems to have led to nugatory work from my perspective, maybe I’m missing something.

  • Aerospike

    I’m not sure why you insist on spelling the pronunciation of delta-v, but it is not a primary characteristic of a rocket engine. It is a result of the thrust!, mass and propellant load of an engine/spacecraft.

    Given that the Isp of a RP-1/LOX engine is better than that of a hybrid and assuming that the liquid engine and associated plumbing doesn’t weight significantly more than the hybrid (especially considering that they already have integrated a pressurization system as well as an additional gas injected into the combustion chamber), the performance of SS2 should increase with the liquid engine.

    However the higher energy density of solid fuel (= more volume needed for kerosene tanks) and the insulation requirements of LOX vs. LN2 would probably require some serious redesign of SS2, so I agree with you that a simple “engine switch” is nothing more than wishful thinking 😉

  • Snofru Chufu

    … never seen “delta-vee”, oh my boy. 🙂

    BTW, you have not to explain basics of rocketry that is carrying coals to Newcastle.:-) However, nice to recognize that we share the view that a complete replacement of propulsion syste, is a significant measures.

  • Aerospike

    As always, your posts leave me puzzled… even when we agree on some aspects.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    BNI is a sharp group of folks. They do a lot with a fairly small team.

  • Larry J

    I read on another website this morning that the new first stage engine specifications are rather similar to the original Merlin A used on the first two Falcon 1 flights. BNI did the turbopumps for that engine as well. It could be they reused the existing turbopump design to save a lot of R&D time and money. Turbopumps are very sophisticated pieces of equipment that can be expensive and trickly to develop. Reusing a proven design would make a lot of sense.

  • Larry J

    Everything in rocket design involves tradeoffs. Pressure fed rocket engines are simple and cheaper but the tanks become quite heavy since they have to be much stronger than other tanks. This can make it harder to achieve the performance gains they wanted. Turbopumps offer higher performance but at increased cost (both in R&D and in normal operations). BNI developed the turbopumps for the Merlin A engine used in the first two Falcon 1 flights. Interestingly enough, the new engine has very similar performance characteristics to the Merlin 1A, so they probably reused the old design.

  • Douglas Messier

    NewtonThree was sized to power SpaceShipTwo. Stephen Attenborough actually told Aviation Week that it would progbably eventually power the ship. But, then they decided to stick with the hybrid. I’m not entirely sure what all the reasons were, but changes would be needed in the ship to accommodate it.

    One of the complaints I’ve heard about VG is its tendency to zig and zag. They don’t know where they want to go, so any road gets them there. Rubber engine. No, nylon is better. Oh, looks like we’re probably going back to rubber again. Wait a minute, you said nylon had better performance. Well, yes, but….

    Same thing with LauncherOne. First, they pursued it, then the program was suspended. Then Markusic got them to a certain point. As he was doing that, they were trying to sell it off to Google. After Markusic left, nothing much happened while they focused on SS2. After the accident, it was suddenly front and center.

    LauncherOne was originally designed to serve one payload class with a set of engines that were fairly far along. Now the capacity is doubled and they have to actually develop NewtonThree and a brand new NewtonFour. And it’s being dropped from a jumbo jet.

  • windbourne

    ??? Why would they sell to Google?

  • James

    Because that would get them money back. Its all about the money.

  • windbourne

    ok. I phrased that wrong.
    Why would google be interested? They have not expressed an interest in space, other than in SpaceX.

  • James

    Probably thats it. Just to see if google wanted to buy them out.

    I am honestly not to sure if the people in charge of virgin galactic really understand what they are doing. I have often that the people running large corporations are in effect just board room lawyers and money people. Reality seems to be something they believe fits a narrative.
    So as long as someone like them is in charge reads a book they know everything.(shrug) Don’t know their crazy.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Thank you, a good summary.

  • LA Julian

    I don’t think English is his first language.

    At least, I certainly hope it isn’t…