Virgin Galactic may be best known for its space tourism ventures, but the organization is also aiming to become a dedicated satellite launch provider, as well. Today, the Virgin Group announced a new spinoff company that will be focused on launching satellites. Called Virgin Orbit, the new company will include the LauncherOne program, an initiative that involves launching small satellites from under the wing of a 747 airplane.
Launching small satellites from under the wing of a 747 airplane
Virgin is bringing in Dan Hart, the former vice president of government satellite systems at Boeing, to serve as the new president of Virgin Orbit. “The perfect next challenge is to lead Virgin Orbit’s entrepreneurial team through a transformative time for not only Virgin Orbit but also the industry,” Hart said in a statement. “To me, the Virgin brand is about making life on Earth better, and we are going to fulfill that purpose by accessing Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to connect billions of people and enabling valuable applications of data from space through Virgin Orbit’s flexible, affordable, and reliable launch service.”
The new company means that the Virgin Group now has three companies dedicated to space travel and technologies. Virgin Galactic is still the group’s space tourism venture, focused on providing sub-orbital spaceflight experiences to paying customers. Currently, that company is testing out its SpaceShipTwo vehicle — a spaceplane that launches from a carrier aircraft — to make sure its ready to safely carry people to the edge of space. The Virgin Group’s other space subsidiary is The Spaceship Company, which designs and manufactures vehicles for Virgin Galactic. All three of these ventures are grouped together under a single portfolio, known as Galactic Ventures.
Both Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company are headquartered in Mojave, California, but Virgin Orbit will operate out of Long Beach. There, Virgin Orbit’s 200 employees will work out of a 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to get the LauncherOne program ready for spaceflight. The program involves the development of two vehicles — the LauncherOne rocket that will send small satellites into orbit, and the 747-400 plane, called Cosmic Girl, that will serve as the “launchpad” for LauncherOne. Cosmic Girl is designed to carry LauncherOne, attached under its wing, up to 35,000 feet. At that altitude, the rocket will be released and fire its single main engine to zoom into space. Eventually the rocket will separate and a second upper stage engine will ignite, boosting the vehicle and its payload into orbit.
A large list of satellites are already slated to launch on LauncherOne
LauncherOne is designed to carry payloads weighing up to 660 pounds into lower Earth orbit. So far, a large list of satellites are already slated to launch on LauncherOne, including payloads for communications company OneWeb and even satellites for NASA. It’s not clear when commercial launches will begin, but Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, has said that test launches for the LauncherOne program could begin this year. He says the move to create Virgin Orbit was meant to signal a commitment to the purpose of LauncherOne. “What we really wanted to do was demonstrate that we had an entity that was focused on the needs of small satellites operators,” Whitesides tells The Verge.
In 2015, Virgin acquired the 747 that’s become Cosmic Girl, and the company has been in the process of updating the vehicle for upcoming launches. Whitesides says those modifications should be finished in a couple months. The subsystems for the rocket are all well into advanced phases of testing too, and the engines that will be used in the rocket — called NewtonThree and NewtonFour — have undergone long-duration full-thrust tests.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic has recently begun tests of SpaceShipTwo, which debuted roughly a year ago. The spaceplane, called VSS Unity, effectively replaces Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which was destroyed during a powered test flight in 2014. So far, VSS Unity has performed a few glide flights — during which the vehicle flies on its own without igniting its engine — but Virgin Galactic plans to ramp up testing over the next year.
Update March 2nd, 2PM ET: This article was updated to include more information about LauncherOne testing.