Virgin Galactic Unveils Its Satellite-Launching Rocket, Will Be Lofted Into Orbit By WhiteKnightTwo

Virgin Galactic officially entered the satellite launch business this morning at the Farnborough International Air Show when founder Sir Richard Branson unveiled LauncherOne, an expendable two-stage rocket designed to blast off at high altitude from Virgin’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo–the same mothership that will launch space tourists on suborbital spaceflights. By circumventing both the weather and the high cost of a terrestrial rocket launch, Branson said he plans to create the lowest satellite launch cost in the space industry.

At $10 million, that cost is still out of the reach of many, but Virgin officials said dozens of deposits have already been placed for LauncherOne’s first flights, slated for 2016. And indeed, $10 million isn’t a bad deal considering LauncherOne can place a 500-pound payload into low-Earth orbit or a 225-pound satellite into sun-synchronous orbit.

LauncherOne also offers some other unique benefits. Since WhiteKnightTwo climbs to very high altitudes before launching whatever vehicle it’s carrying, it operates above just about any kind of weather disturbance that might hinder a terrestrial rocket launch. WhiteKnightTwo can also launch from airports; in a service unique to Virgin, payloads can be integrated into the LauncherOne vehicle wherever the customer wants to launch from, provided the facility is near a runway that can accommodate WhiteKnightTwo.

By spreading the cost around between passenger spaceflight and commercial satellite launch, Branson said he hopes to lower the cost of getting small satellites into space to unlock both scientific and commercial potential. That’s a refrain we’ve been hearing a lot lately–get commercial interests involved, create an economic incentive for more and better space exploration, and technology investment will pay both commercial and scientific dividends.

No wonder then that one of the first customers to put down money on Virgin’s satellite-launch scheme is none other than Planetary Resources, the tech-celeb-backed firm that has announced its intention to mine an asteroid for platinum group metals. Planetary Resources plans to launch several small satellites over the next several years to search for potentially valuable asteroids. Now we know how they’re going to do it.

LauncherOne will make its initial test flight in 2015.