Companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK (formerly Orbital Sciences) will soon have big competition when it comes to putting satellites into space. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic just completed a deal to build a facility for the design and manufacturing of LauncherOne, a two-stage orbital launch vehicle that can carry satellites weighing up to 500 pounds. The 150,000-square-foot facility will be built at the Long Beach Airport in a spot formerly occupied by Boeing.
There is at least one mission already on the books for LauncherOne. A company called OneWeb is trying to create a satellite-based internet by launching a network of 648 of them into orbit. Branson announced a deal with the company last month.
Instead of using launchpads like SpaceX, LauncherOne is designed to be released mid-flight from Virgin's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. (Orbital's Pegasus I rocket works in a similar way but is designed to carry heavier satellites, and the company's working on a "Pegasus II" project that echoes Virgin's current setup.) Virgin Galactic claims this method allows it offer a launch price that is the "lowest in the nation or perhaps the world."
Launches every three or four hours, instead of twice a month
This method could also make it easier for companies to place their satellites in the desired orbit since the launch doesn't have to take place from a fixed position. Branson told CNBC last month that the LauncherOne and WhiteKnightTwo combination could allow the company to "literally take off every three or four hours." For comparison, SpaceX performs launches bimonthly at best.
WhiteKnightTwo is the same aircraft that Virgin Galactic uses to launch SpaceShipTwo, the company's crewed vehicle. The company has been testing that ship in the hopes of eventually offering commercial spaceflight to the masses in the next few years, but a fatal test flight accident in the fall has stalled that timeline.