Flamboyant British businessman Richard Branson, whose Virgin empire has encompassed airlines, music stores, mobile phones and condoms, is turning his hand to launching satellites.
The serial entrepreneur and part-time daredevil, who is already working on taking passengers into suborbital space, said on Wednesday the carrier jet for those commercial flights would double as an aerial platform for launching small satellites.
Fresh from kite surfing across the English Channel, Mr. Branson took the stage at the Farnborough Airshow on Wednesday to unveil LauncherOne, a companion satellite-launching business to Virgin Galactic’s passenger suborbital spaceflight service.
“I believe this new vehicle will create a long-overdue shakeup of the whole satellite industry, disrupting current norms and limitations in exactly the way SpaceShipTwo has for human space travel and space-based science research,” he said.
Virgin Galactic has taken deposits from 529 people for rides on SpaceShipTwo, which cost $200,000.
The six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship, currently undergoing testing, is based on Scaled Composites’ prototype SpaceShipOne, which clinched the $10-million (U.S.) Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first privately funded human spaceflights.
Mr. Branson, 61, said he plans to fly with his two children on the first operational SpaceShipTwo flight next year.
Like SpaceShipTwo, LauncherOne will be flown into the air beneath a carrier jet and released. Once separated, the vehicle’s rocket engine will fire to carry it into space.
SpaceShipTwo passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curve of Earth set against the blackness of space before returning back through the atmosphere. NASA’s first two manned spaceflights in 1961, by Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom, were similar suborbital flights.
LauncherOne, which is designed for cargo only, will be able to put satellites weighing up to 225 kilograms into orbit for less than $10-million.
“We can do it for about one-third of the price of anybody else,” Mr. Branson told Reuters. “That makes us believe there’s a big market that will move from their current suppliers, and we’ll create a whole new market. There’s lots of people who would love to put satellites up for lots of different reasons, but it’s just been prohibitively expensive in the past.”
Virgin Galactic president George Whitesides said four companies, including Planetary Resources, a newly unveiled venture to build and fly privately funded space telescopes, have put down deposits for LauncherOne flights.
Initially, both SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne missions will be staged from Spaceport America, a new commercial spaceport in New Mexico.
“One of the advantages of this is we can have them based at different parts of the world. We may build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi. Sweden wants to build a spaceport and there are other places as well,” Mr. Branson said.
Virgin Galactic’s initial fleet includes five spaceships and three White Knight carrier aircraft.
LauncherOne, a two-stage liquid-fueled rocket being developed by The Spaceship Company (TSC) of Mojave, Calif., is expected to debut in 2016. TSC is a partnership of Virgin Galactic and Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.