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Space Science

Virgin Galactic Announces New Satellite Launch Vehicle 102

Posted by Soulskill
from the commercial-space-industry-turning-into-actual-industry dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Virgin Galactic has announced a new craft called LauncherOne, which it will use to put satellites into orbit. 'It appears to leverage some of the hardware already developed for SpaceShipTwo, Virgin's suborbital tourist vehicle. Like SpaceShipTwo, the new rocket rides up underneath Virgin's big carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, to about 50,000 feet. After release, the rocket drops for approximately four seconds before the first stage ignites. After the first stage burns out, a second stage takes the satellite to orbit.' Launching from a moving airplane eliminates many cost and scheduling concerns inherent to ground-based launches, and it's much easier to reach a broad range of trajectories for putting objects into orbit. According to the press release, LauncherOne will get objects up to 225kg into orbit for less than $10 million."
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Virgin Galactic Announces New Satellite Launch Vehicle

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  • by benjfowler (239527) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:14PM (#40640445)

    Orbital Sciences build something very similar, called Pegasus. It's air launched, is quite reliable, can throw 440kg into LEO, has a very good launch record -- and costs roughly as much ($11m a pop, if memory serves correctly.)

    Branson is nuts if he thinks he can prevail against Orbital in this segment of the launch market.

    • by medcalf (68293) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:18PM (#40640489) Homepage
      I suspect Branson's focused on building an infrastructure with common parts. Having suborbital crew (for tourism or research), LEO cargo, and eventually orbital crew with a lot of common components would be a very good foundation for a profitable, ongoing company. He doesn't have to beat every competitor in every sub-market in order to do quite well.
      • by benjfowler (239527) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:21PM (#40640517)

        But to pay for it all, he's got to win cargo launch business first.

        He's a brave man all right.

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          Well, given that he's worth around $4 billion or so ... I'd say whatever he's doing it working for him.

        • by medcalf (68293)
          He's already got a launch contract that, if he delivers, will pay for the system's development, based on what was announced at Farnborough, so I'd say that he's already won some cargo launch business.
        • by l0ungeb0y (442022)

          Considering Virgin Galactic started as a venture between Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, I think it's safe to assume that they might have some connections with both the Space Industry and major Corporate interests.

          So getting a few early level customers on board shouldn't be too hard.

        • by osu-neko (2604)

          But to pay for it all, he's got to win cargo launch business first.

          He's a brave man all right.

          Yes, because history has shown there isn't room for more than one car company, more than one aircraft manufacturer, more than one game company, etc. You have to "win", be better than everyone else, or else you can't be profitable at all.

          Wait, what?

    • I thought this was pretty obvious:

      They aren't in this to make money! Not really anyway. All they're doing is recouping some of their research and development costs, costs that are being racked up as they work towards a manned orbital vehicle. Think about it. 250kg isn't much, but it's enough to bring 2 people plus a weeks worth of supplies to LEO. Boost that to 500 kg with the next iteration, get it man certified, and all you really need is a destination to start selling orbital vacations to the super

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Branson is nuts if he thinks he can prevail against Orbital in this segment of the launch market.

      Did you read TFA? It specifically talks about Orbital's "struggling" Pegasus XL. Specifically, that it's much more expensive on a per-pound basis.

      The article claims that Branson already has customers lined up. Too soon to say what will happen, of course, but I certainly wouldn't call the man "nuts."

      • by benjfowler (239527) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:28PM (#40640589)

        I certainly did. People with expensive payloads are not that sensitive to price. They ARE however, quite sensitive to getting their stuff to orbit in one piece. Something that Branson has so far failed to demonstrate.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          "Branson is nuts if he thinks he can prevail against Orbital in this segment of the launch market."

          So now its just that he hasn't tried it? People are nuts to try stuff? Or nuts to think about trying stuff? Or should this be "lets go once, if it works, keep going, if not, give up and quit". Good thing there's men made of sterner stuff than you, or we'd never get anywhere.

          • I don't care, it's his money.

            But it's not obvious to me, hypothetically as a customer, why I'd consider flying a payload on Branson's paper rocket, as opposed to a tried and true launch vehicle that's already been through it's launch failures and cost overruns.

    • by Rei (128717) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:41PM (#40640737) Homepage

      Scaled Composites (Branson) built some of the structural components for the Pegasus. It's not an entirely new field for them.

    • I've always wondered why air-launches like this aren't more commonly used, it's been known for a long time that they're much more efficient than a conventional ground-launched rocket.

      • by fotoguzzi (230256)
        I had thought the consensus was that air launch was not much of a benefit over ground launch. That is, I thought the need for an air launch to be perfect versus, simply leaving a liquid-fueled rocket clamped to the launch pad was one disadvantage, and the velocity and altitude were not that much of an advantage compared to the difficulties of an air launch.

        Obviously air-launch worked for X-1 and X-15, but I never heard of anyone trying to air-launch the space shuttle.
        • Maybe the consensus among armchair rocket scientists is it's not much benefit. Among real rocket scientists the consensus is it doubles payload over launching the same rocket from the ground. A rocket starting from sea level has the following losses:

          * Gravity loss - when you are thrusting vertically, that is not adding to your orbital velocity.
          * Drag loss - aerodynamic drag flying through the atmosphere resists your acceleration
          * Thrust loss - rocket engines have less thrust at sea level because of air pr

      • by Overzeetop (214511) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:55PM (#40640891) Journal

        A couple of things: Air launches are dangerous - you've got a whole bunch of explosives strapped to the body of a very large aircraft which is carrying humans (pilots, support personnel). This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The FAA makes certification of a new aircraft a monumental task. Orbital found out that just modifying their jet to carry Pegasus required a very lengthy (and expensive) re-certification process. The initial payload is limited to the capacity of the aircraft minus the booster. That's actually a pretty big deal.

        Disclaimer: I worked with the NASA group that designed the original PegSat (first Pegasus payload) and I worked for Orbital, but not their flight group - most of what I know is from the trade rags of the time.

        • by 0123456 (636235)

          A couple of things: Air launches are dangerous - you've got a whole bunch of explosives strapped to the body of a very large aircraft which is carrying humans (pilots, support personnel). This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The FAA makes certification of a new aircraft a monumental task.

          Uh, WK2 will already be cerified for carrying SS2. So while I'm sure there'll be extra work required to prove they can carry an orbital rocket safely, they won't have to start from scratch with a new aircraft.

        • by gman003 (1693318)

          Random idea here - has there been any research into re-using old bombers for this? A B-52 Stratofortress can carry over 30,000kg, and already has most of the fittings to carry and air-drop large, rocket-shaped objects. Would whatever modifications needed be small enough to not require recertification? I'm not an expert, or even knowledgeable about this whole thing, but it seems at least plausible.

          • by Crash24 (808326)
            The B-52 has indeed been used to drop many rocket-propelled aircraft, unmanned rockets and missiles from external pylons - including the X-15 and prototypes of the Pegasus rocket. When compared to civilian aircraft, it's quite expensive to maintain and operate at about $72,000 [wikipedia.org] per flight hour. It might not seem like much compared to the cost of the launches themselves, but these carrier aircraft are flown often for testing/certification purposes. Those recurring costs coupled with the fact that these air
        • by spasm (79260)

          The FAA do not control airspace for the entire planet. And unless you include a couple of expensive-to-get-to island territories, the FAA don't control any airspace within 24 degrees of the equator. Pegasus was a NASA project and hence more or less had to launch from US territory for political reasons; Virgin is a UK-based company headed by a UK citizen. Virgin Space may be based in the US at the moment due to convenient access to technical talent, but they have no real reason to launch in the US at all,

        • Perhaps the aircraft should be a drone? Then no humans would be at risk, plus it might prove marginally cheaper to operate and save on dead weight.
      • Air launches may be good for small cargo, but they are abysmal at heavy lift.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by aquabat (724032)
      Yeah, it must really suck to be Richard Branson, always having really cool Ideas and then going out and making them happen. I wish I was that nuts.
    • by l0ungeb0y (442022)

      "Branson is nuts if he thinks he can parlay a Music Retail Store into a multi-billion dollar empire"

      Considering his track record in even more established and crowded markets, I'd say he has a good chance of success here.
      Believe it or not, there is room for competition in ANY market and the results of competition are typically positive.

    • There is a difference as well in the carrier aircraft.

      Pegasus looks to be using a commercial aircraft, Lockheed Stargazer per Wikipedia. It has to be retrofitted to accommodate Pegasus.

      Now, Virgin Galactic has WhiteKnight2 which is purpose built to carry a craft bound for suborbital, or orbital flight.

      There is a trade-off there. The Stargazer could in theory be cheaper since it is one of hundreds but has an increased cost for retrofit.

      WhiteKnight2 might cost more because it's unique, but it can handle getti

  • by Picass0 (147474) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:17PM (#40640473) Homepage Journal

    ... and to some extent he is as the CEO and the figurehead for Virgin. But he does ambitious stuff nobody else is doing.

    I hope he makes mad profits in the space business and other companies see the potential.

    • I've been told his businesses have to make a business case for every publicity stunt he does, and they have to fund it. Think of it as saving some of the money spent on expensive celebrity endorsements by being your own celebrity, and it makes a lot of sense.
    • Ever read any Stephen Baxter? He's got a character called Reid Malenfant who's very Branson-esque, with some trampling-over-regulation thrown in for good measure. Thinking about it, I suspect Branson's main challenge has been red tape.
    • by Rei (128717)

      Maybe for something the size of a dog or smaller. At $10m a pop.

      Most of the mass of a spacecraft is not the mass of its occupants.

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Most of the mass of a spacecraft is not the mass of its occupants.

        But for a minimal capsule you just need a heat shield, a parachute and a space suit. Launch it into a low enough orbit and it will re-enter automatically after a few hours. Shape it properly and aerodynamic drag will ensure it points in the right direction during re-entry.

        200kg would be a pretty tight budget, but it could probably be done provided the passenger wasn't obese.

        • Ditch the space suit. If your capsule is going to fail it is going to fail catastrophically, and if it fails catastrophically, a space suit ain't gonna help.
          • by 0123456 (636235)

            Ditch the space suit. If your capsule is going to fail it is going to fail catastrophically, and if it fails catastrophically, a space suit ain't gonna help.

            The space suit means you don't need to provide a life support system for the entire cabin, so it's probably lighter. But you'd have to consider both options in the design.

            I don't think you could just fill the cabin with air and launch because temperature variations between the night and day side of the orbit would probably require heating and cooling. If you can get away with that then ditching the suit might make sense.

        • The point is, it's orbital. You'd run out of consumables before you needed to worry about re-entry, just aim for a recovery craft. I'll place a bet here and now that somebody does an orbit in a Red Bull branded capsule (complete with ring-pull) before 2025.
      • Of course not, they're all weightless. Badam tzzz. Sorry, couldn't resist.
  • Why is this novel? (Score:3, Informative)

    by jeffmeden (135043) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:20PM (#40640509) Homepage Journal

    I am not an expert but some quick calculations reveal that if they can launch 225kg payload for $10M that puts it at pretty close to the same cost other vehicles have been providing for years, like an Athena 2 or Taurus launch vehicle (which can also support much heavier payloads). Is this unique in that it is specifically for smaller payloads? Or, is the ability to do launches "wherever, whenever"? This has interesting implications but doesnt seem like it would shake up the market too much given that most satellites are planned out pretty far in advance of going to orbit.

    • Calculate this (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:36PM (#40640667) Journal

      Say you got a 200kg sattelite you want in orbit. How do you get it to launch on a normal rocket? Not alone for sure, it may be the same kilo price but those rockets are not going to go up for just you. Which means you got to fit yourself around the schedules and requirements of others. Want an odd orbit? Sorry, our rocket ain't going there.

      Sending cargo by ocean vessel is insanely cheap. Pity if you got a parcel to be delivered to Switzerland. The right vehicle, at the right cost.

      Lets just assume for a second that a self-made billionaire knows more about making money then all of slashdot put together.

    • But there is greater flexibility with Pegasus and Virgin Galatic's vehicle.

      The available launch times should be much greater than a standard rocket launch.

  • by Cyberax (705495) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:26PM (#40640569)
    $10M for 225 kg is more than $40000 per kg. That's even more than Shuttle's effective price-to-orbit for its payload. Once they get their price at least 10 times down then they can start thinking about competing with real rockets.
    • by Rei (128717) on Friday July 13, 2012 @12:45PM (#40640781) Homepage

      Really low-mass spacecraft launches are more expensive per kilogram; that's just the way it works. But it does go to show that all of the people on Slashdot several years ago talking about how Branson is just a hop, skip, and a jump from cheap orbital space travel because he made a suborbital joyride, and how their prices were going to blow everyone's away because the joyride cost hundreds of thousands per person instead of millions ... well, I hope this is a dose of reality as to how much more expensive and difficult orbital travel is than suborbital.

      • by Cyberax (705495)
        Well, it's still an expensive joyride. Now with a toy rocket attached.

        Reality is quite simple - it CAN NOT SCALE. There's simply no sense in strapping a full-scale rocket to an airplane, additional dV from airplane start is less than 300m/s (from the required 8km/s to enter a stable orbit).
        • by david.given (6740)

          Reality scales very nicely, thank you very much --- the one I live in looks as if it's at least 90 billion light years across!

          More seriously, Branson's design is very similar to Orbital Science's Pegasus [wikipedia.org] air-launched vehicle, and they're doing very nicely with it.

          • by Cyberax (705495)
            Erm. That's just 400kg to LEO for $10M.

            The good old R-7 family rockets can get 7tons to LEO for roughly the same price. SpaceX aims for $1100 per kg to LEO and currently achieve around $2000 per kg to LEO. That's more than an order of magnitude cheaper than these skyrockets.
            • by david.given (6740)

              Yes --- but what if you don't want to get seven tonnes to LEO?

              These launchers are specifically designed for the case when you have a small satellite which you want to launch into a funny orbit, which means you're not going to find anyone else to split the launch costs with. In this situation it's worth paying more per kilogram so that you end up paying less total.

              Remember, the big launchers won't scale down any more than the small ones will scale up...

              • by Cyberax (705495)
                But what are you going to do with 400kg on a LEO? That's barely enough for a spy/imaging satellite and little else. Even communication satellites are not feasible - as they won't work during the night.

                You can put stuff into a Molniya orbit fairly easy from LEO, but it'll cut your 400kg budget even further.
        • by lgw (121541)

          The particular plane he usues won't scale, but the idea is fin: a re-usable first stage that decouples at a speed an altitude where it can be air-breathing and won't need heat shielding for re-entry.

          "Hyper soar" style planes have potential here, as a resuable first stage, if the underlying tech (materials science, mostly) matures enough to become reasonably priced. Reach the limits of speed and elevation (the latter is what mostly matters here) that are practical with an air breathing engine and aitcraft c

          • by Cyberax (705495)
            Most of air resistance happens during the later stages, far beyond the ~10km realistic airplane ceiling. I think you'll get more advantage from not having to start from a vertical position.

            I actually would LOVE to see real spaceplanes that are SSTO or SSTO+small_booster, maybe Skylon spaceplane would fly one day...
            • by lgw (121541)

              Most of air resistance happens during the later stages, far beyond the ~10km realistic airplane ceiling

              Well, that ws sort of my entire point: it makes sense to have an air-breathing, air-controlled first stage, but not a traditional airplane, for the first stage. And taking your first stage with you into orbit just seems silly to me.

              "Real SSTO Spaceplanes" remain about the silliest idea I've seen. I swear, geeks are in love with them because they look good on the covers of SF boooks or something. The first stage, where you need all your high thrust-to-mass, dont care about ISP stuff, tends to need quite h

              • by waimate (147056)

                why carry a bunch of extra fuel in later stages to haul al that deadweight around?

                It's not quite as simple as this, but the answer to your question is "because fuel is really really cheap, and flight hardware is really really expensive".

              • by Cyberax (705495)
                "Real" SSTO spaceplanes would actually use LESS fuel per kg to LEO than a conventional rocket.

                The first stage, where you need all your high thrust-to-mass, dont care about ISP stuff, tends to need quite heavy structure, as that's where you're biggest fuel weight and highest stresses tned to be - why carry a bunch of extra fuel in later stages to haul al that deadweight around? And why pile even more weight on that to heat-shield the first stage for reentry?

                You're thinking wrong. Spaceplanes do NOT need a high thrust-to-mass first stage because they can use aerodynamic lift to gently accelerate to about Mach 5 using ONLY hydrogen fuel and atmospheric oxygen. That'll require only a fraction of fuel for of a conventional rocket. Additionally, a spaceplane would run its engines in a much MUCH gentler mode than engines on a conventional rocket (remember, much less thrust-

                • by lgw (121541)

                  OK, great, fine. But now you're at the edge of the atmosphere, now what? There's a lot of size and mass involved in that plane that got you there - leaving it behind at that point will be far cheaper than dragging it along for the rest of the flight. And up to this point you don't need much in the way of re-entry shielding, which is good because your plane has this large surface area, with complex control surfaces, and heat shielding all of that is a bitch.

                  Spaceplanes make a fine first stage no question

                  • by Cyberax (705495)

                    OK, great, fine. But now you're at the edge of the atmosphere, now what?

                    You switch your air-breathing engines to pure rocket engine mode by turning on oxidizer supply. Since you've avoided carrying oxygen for what effectively is your first stage you have a VERY high overall specific impulse (probably more than 3000 seconds!) - there's no need for the second stage with its own engines. There's also no need for complex connectivity system for the second stage, no need for specialized return craft and so on.

                    It's actually within the realm of possibility to have a fully reusable

                    • by lgw (121541)

                      I guess where I disagree is that what I see as "revolutionizing space travel" is to stop pushing the limits of materials science to make the craft work at all. That's the big problem wth SSTO - stuff that's barely possible in rocketry has very little margin for error, for failure, for the normal allowances one makes in every othe kind of engineering for the parts not being quite to spec. The reason planes are so much cheaper than rockets is preciely because there's some room for slop and fidging in the p

                    • by Cyberax (705495)
                      Well, it looks like that we've basically platoed on material development. And it's not like we have a lot to look forward to, we're actually about 15% from the theoretical limit for the H2/LOX rocket engine efficiency with recent rocket motors.

                      Anyway, spaceplanes would still require quite a lot of non-trivial engineering. Skylon spaceplane actually pushes the limits on thermal conductive materials and hydrogen embrittlement-resistant alloys (for their precooler). But ultimately yes, spaceplanes would all
      • by Muad'Dave (255648)

        Really low-mass spacecraft launches are more expensive per kilogram; that's just the way it works.

        Not if you're AMSAT - we often get low mass launches for free* as space-rated ballast.

        (*Free to launch, but not free to certify space-worthy).

  • People have been saying for the last couple decades that anything going to space should be flown up as high as possible with a high altitude plane then launched from there. The weight vs fuel needed ratio goes way up because then you don't need more fuel to lift the weight of the fuel over and over in some weird logarithm thing that end up with lots and lots of fuel needed. Of course, that didn't stop them from putting a relatively ridiculous price tag on it. Isn't the whole marketing point that it's che
    • by medcalf (68293)
      Well, except that they lose a lot of the efficiency by carrying the vehicle up already fueled. The ideal from a cost standpoint, particularly because of what it does to the structure of the spacecraft being carried, is to carry it to altitude without at least the oxidizer, then transfer the oxidizer in flight. Means you need a tanker as well as a carrier aircraft (unless the spacecraft can operate as a jet in the atmosphere, which introduces other complexities), but it makes your vehicle structure lighter a
  • by Grayhand (2610049) on Friday July 13, 2012 @01:15PM (#40641067)
    "LauncherOne will get objects up to 225kg into orbit for less than $10 million."

    That's just enough to orbit my mother in law.

  • Despite the $/kg numbers, air launch IS more efficient than ground launch, and over time (after the initial cost of development has been diluted), should be significantly cheaper if only because of the fuel savings. Remember, rockets have to carry their oxidizer in big ass tanks that may also need big ass cryogenic cooling systems. Airplanes steal it from the atmosphere.

    The effect is so pronounced because a plane is able to carry the rocket past what would be the Max Q [wikipedia.org] point for ground launch, usually ar
  • I wonder when Branson will announce the intent to start a passanger service?

    Ever since the Concorde was grounded there hasn't been anyway for the uber-rich to get from here to there faster then us proles. I'm pretty sure there are folks who'd pay more then a few dollars to get from New York to Paris and back with time left over to flog their yacht crew for letting the boat get wet.

    • by isorox (205688)

      I wonder when Branson will announce the intent to start a passanger service?

      Ever since the Concorde was grounded there hasn't been anyway for the uber-rich to get from here to there faster then us proles. I'm pretty sure there are folks who'd pay more then a few dollars to get from New York to Paris and back with time left over to flog their yacht crew for letting the boat get wet.

      Concorde tickets were remarkably cheap - not much more than a first class fare on a real (non-american) airline -- SQ, BA, EK etc. Think about a situation where your factory, costing $100k/hour, is broken, and you need an expert person, or a part, to get there ASAP. A 3 hours flight saves $500k rather than choosing an 8 hour flight, so a $100k ticket would be well worth it.

      Sadly the lack of reasonable length journeys were blocked politically (unable to offer supersonic JFK to LAX in 2 hours gate-gate for

  • Carry an X-37? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by xanthos (73578) <xanthos@[ ]e.com ['tok' in gap]> on Friday July 13, 2012 @01:40PM (#40641361)

    Dug around in Wikipedia a little and found that White Knight 2 has a carrying capacity of 35,000 lbs (~16k kilos). The X-37B is listed at 11,000 (5k) fully loaded, the crewcab version X-37C should be under 25,000 and even the old pre-composite X-15 was 34,000(15.4k). Now the X-15 was far shy of orbital velocity, but rocket design has advanced some in the 40+ years since the end of the program and building a standby vehicle for quick launch to orbit might be getting feasible.

    I, like many, have mourned the decline of manned space exploration. However, I see the work of Virgin Galactec and SpaceX as reasons to hope that not all is dead.

    Maybe the parts are coming together.

    -Xanthos

    • WhiteKnightTwo can put 225 kg into orbit according to TFA. It may be able to carry the X-37B, but not the X-37B plus the giant booster it needs to get into orbit.

  • Some people are thinking that the advertised cost of 10m per 225kg means that his costs are the same as Pegasus. They do not realize that branson would not start in the market at his lowest profitable point. If market price is 20k per kg, but I can do it for 5k, I'll just take the extra profit until the market catches up!

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken

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