Virgin Galactic, the space tourism arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has revealed plans to develop a vehicle to launch small satellites into orbit.
Plans for the new vehicle, which is known as LauncherOne, were unveiled during the Farnborough International Air Show 2012.
Virgin Galactic has already raised “substantial funding” from its partner aabar Investments PJS, and commercial flights of the new orbital launch vehicle are expected to begin by 2016.
Virgin Galactic said that it aims to offer frequent and dedicated launches at the “world’s lowest prices”.
LauncherOne will be a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (225 kilograms) to orbit for prices below $10 million. The rocket will be launched from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft that is also designed to carry SpaceShipTwo – the company’s space tourism vehicle – into orbit.
“Virgin Galactic’s goal is to revolutionise the way we get to space,” Branson said. “I’m immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo. Now, LauncherOne is bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies. It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably.”
Four private companies have already put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to purchase a total of several dozen launches, which would exceed the level of early commitment of any previous new launch vehicle, the company added.
Among the early customers are Skybox Imaging, a Silicon Valley-based firm that recently announced it had raised $91 million for a high resolution imaging constellation; and GeoOptics, a US-based company developing a constellation of non-imaging remote sensing satellites.