Aabar Watch: Scandal Envelops Virgin Galactic’s Abu Dhabi Partner

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, which made a $280 million in Virgin Galactic.
Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, during the Oshkosh airshow in 2009. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

It’s been quite a while since we’ve checked in with our friends over at Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi-owned sovereign wealth fund that invested $390 million into Virgin Galactic in exchange for a 37.6-percent share of Sir Richard Branson’s space line.

And boy, do I wish we had checked in sooner. There’s been some real serious [expletive deleted] going down with that investment with that fund over the past year. Real serious you know what.

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SpaceShipTwo’s PF-04: A High-Risk Flight

Mike Alsbury
Mike Alsbury

Part 1 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Mike Alsbury’s day began with a 3 a.m. wake up at his home in Tehachapi, Calif. He showered, dressed and ate a breakfast that likely consisted of an apple and a granola bar.

Alsbury rarely awoke at so early; but this Oct. 31 was a flight test day. That meant a lot of people were getting up early for the latest milestone in the Tier 1B program. At least that’s what they called it at Alsbury’s employer, Scaled Composites. The rest of the world knew it as WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – the foundation of Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism program. Scaled built and tested the vehicles for the British billionaire’s spaceline, Virgin Galactic.

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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.

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Virgin Galactic Gears Up for Resumption of Flight Tests

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the tarmac on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Update: No flight on Friday, but there was a hybrid engine test of about 60 seconds on one of the test stands that reportedly went well.

After a six-month gap in flights, it looks as if SpaceShipTwo will once again fly in the Mojave sky, possibly as early as Friday morning.

On Wednesday, SpaceShipTwo was outside on the tarmac underneath its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship for what Virgin Galactic described as a “dry run” for upcoming test flights. There is a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) indicating that the Mojave Air and Space Port’s tower will be open early on Friday morning. It’s possible this is being done to accommodate a SpaceShipTwo test flight, although sometimes the tower opens early for other reasons.

If there is a flight tomorrow, my best guess is it will involve a captive carry or un-powered drop test to evaluate modifications that have been made to SpaceShipTwo. But, perhaps they will surprise us with something more ambitious.

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UAE to Create Space Agency, Send Spacecraft to Mars in 2021

UAE_Coat_of_ArmsThe United Arab Emirates plans to establish a space agency and to launch for the first Arab spacecraft to Mars by 2021 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation’s founding.

“The UAE Mars probe represents the Islamic world’s entry into the era of space exploration,” said President Sheikh Khalifa, according to state news agency WAM.

“We will prove that we are capable of delivering new scientific contributions to humanity.

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Space Conferences, Engine Claims and Silly Putty

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Over the years, I’ve heard many speakers at various space conferences and events say all sorts of things that I felt…oh, comment on dit?…stretched the truth like Silly Putty. Yes, that’s a polite way to put it.

After a while, I’ve become quite numb to it all — the hype, promises, publicity stunts, optimistic schedules that get blown away like fallen leaves on a windy Mojave day. By this point, most of it just passes over me without meriting so much as a mention.

But, sometimes I hear something that stretches the rhetorical Silly Putty beyond the breaking point. I had just such an experience three weeks ago at the Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

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Whitesides: First Spaceflight on Schedule for This Year

George Whitesides
George Whitesides

Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi government company which owns 37.8 percent of Virgin Galactic, release the following Q&A today with Galactic CEO and President George Whitesides.

What brings you to the UAE?

We’re here for two events. The first was the Global Aerospace Summit. Secondly, we had a board meeting with our fellow Virgin Galactic shareholders, Aabar Investments, in their parent company’s, International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), HQ building.

Is this your first time in Abu Dhabi?

We are co-owned by Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments. Naturally, with significant Abu Dhabi ownership, represented on our Board, we have been frequent visitors since Aabar made its initial investment in [2010]. We are very proud of our Emirati connections and continue to benefit from Aabar Investments’ ownership.

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Virgin Galactic Mulling Deeper Partnership With Abu Dhabi Government

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Will the Abu Dhabi government become even more deeply involved in Virgin Galactic?

That’s the question this week as Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides revealed that Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company is in talks with Mubadala Development Company about a possible supplier relationship.

Mubadala, which is a wholly-owned investment vehicle for Abu Dhabi’s government, owns Mubadala Aerospace, which manufactures and supplies parts for commercial jets built by Boeing and Airbus.

Asked if Mubadala could supply parts or build any part of Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft fleet, Whitesides said, “We’ve had good conversations with Mubadala and other stakeholders in the UAE and we will see where those conversations go.”

However, he added that he “won’t get into the details of those discussions.”

The Abu Dhabi government has invested $390 million in Virgin Galactic through Aabar Investments, which it also owns. Aabar holds a 37.8% share in Virgin Galactic.

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Space Tourism Flights from Abu Dhabi Possible Within Three Years

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic’s Steve Landeene is over at the Global Space and Satellite Forum in Abu Dhabi this week, where he talked about the company’s plans for a spaceport there. The highlights:

  • Space tourists could begin flying into space from Abu Dhabi beginning in the 2015-2016 time frame.
  • A decision is still pending on whether to fly from an existing airport or to build a spaceport from scratch.
  • “The most likely way forward is phased approach, starting with an existing infrastructure and then migration as you become more established.”
  • No regulatory framework yet exists in the United Arab Emirates to support spaceflight.
  • ITAR and MTCR are hurdles to exporting SpaceShipTwo, WhiteKnightTwo and LauncherOne overseas.
  • There is a possibility that SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo could be manufactured in the UAE.
  • Virgin Galactic is working with Khalifa University on developing an educational program that would fly experiments into space.

Aabar Investments, a company owned by the Abu Dhabi government, has put up most of the money for the development of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Aabar has invested $490 million in Virgin Galactic and owns 37.8 percent of the company. The investment includes $390 million for an equity share in Virgin Galactic and $100 million to fund LauncherOne.

Read the full story.

VG Update: We Hope to Make Flights into Space by End of 2013

SpaceShipTwo in flight on Dec. 19, 2012. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in flight on Dec. 19, 2012. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The National out of the UAE has the latest schedule prediction from Virgin Galactic, which features the usual if, then we hope qualifiers and promises of great benefits once the blessed day arrives when commercial operations actually begin:

“Depending on the progress of the last portion of the experimental test flight programme and the federal aviation authority licensing process we hope to be undertaking full space test flights by the end of 2013 and in commercial operations within a relatively short period thereafter,” says Sean Wilson, a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman.

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Steve Landeene to Oversee Abu Dhabi Spaceport Development for Virgin Galactic

Steve Landeene

ABU DHABI (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic LLC (“Virgin Galactic”), part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and Aabar Investments PJS (“Aabar”) today announced that they had appointed Steve Landeene to the role of Chief Advisor, Spaceport Abu Dhabi. Between 2007 and 2010, Landeene was Executive Director of Spaceport America in New Mexico and oversaw the development of Virgin Galactic’s operational hub and the world’s first purpose built commercial spaceport.

Under a deal announced in 2009 between Virgin Galactic and Aabar, the two companies agreed that Abu Dhabi would gain exclusive regional rights, subject to the receipt of regulatory clearances, to host Virgin Galactic tourism and scientific research space flights. Landeene’s appointment is an important step in bringing those plans to fruition, underscoring Abu Dhabi’s commitment to being an international destination of choice and a regional leader in tourism, advanced science, technology and higher education.

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Surrey Chief Sees Middle East Space Growth, Lunarnet

Some interesting remarks from Surrey Satellite Technology Chairman Martin Sweeting, who is set to address delegates at the Global Space and Satellite Forum (GSSF) 2011 in Abu Dhabi in May:

“The Middle East region has already demonstrated a keen interest in space-based technologies and I am therefore delighted to be given the opportunity to address the delegates at this year’s GSSF. Small satellites are at the forefront of space innovation, and I believe that there are great opportunities for the region to benefit from the high-tech commercial opportunities in this growing space sector.”

While speaking to the ‘Engineer’ last November, Sir Martin made a prediction which are precisely what you would expect from a visionary. He looks forward to manned space exploration returning within the next ten years after the discovery of significant amounts of water on the Moon and, never one to miss a business opportunity, Sweeting plans to surround the Moon with small satellites to give astronauts internet and communication capabilities.

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UAE Becomes Center of Middle East’s Space Effort

The seven-state United Arab Emirates is quickly becoming the center of the Middle East’s space effort, with agreements with Virgin Galactic for a suborbital spaceport and Bigelow Aerospace to develop an orbital spaceflight program. In the process, it is riding the crest of a new commercial wave in how human spaceflight will be conducted.

UAE might have the first commercial suborbital spaceport outside of the United States should the American government allows Virgin Galactic to export its WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system.

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Abu Dhabi More Excited About Space Hotel Than Most Aerospace Experts

galactic_suite

A bit more about the growing role of Abu Dhabi in commercial space and Galactic Suite’s planned space hotel from Arabian Business:

The UAE already ranks second on the list of reservations from space fans around the world, beaten only by the US.

Space tourism is seen as a growing business sector in the UAE, with Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments buying a 32 percent stake in Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for $280 million.

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