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Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is developing a satellite launcher that would offer cut-price rates and help fund the entrepreneur’s commercial space programme.
The technology for the system is similar to that employed in the company’s design for its suborbital passenger spaceship – whereby a rocket is launched mid-air from the hull of another aircraft – and should be ready for commercial flight in 2016, Virgin said.
Satellite launches are estimated to cost anywhere between $50m to $100m. But Sir Richard said he would charge just $10m to carry up to 500lbs into orbit, “bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies”.
Governments fund about 70 per cent of space launches, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration, but often contract work out to private companies.
Sir Richard added: “It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably.”
He announced the plans at the Farnborough Air Show on Wednesday before hosting a reception for some of the 529 people who have put down deposits for $200,000 seats on SpaceShip 2 – the aircraft designed for civilian flights. Its development was going according to plan, he said, with the first flight – which will achieve weightlessness in the cabin but remain suborbital – set for next year.
A significant portion of Virgin Galactic’s funding comes from Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, which holds a stake in the group. But satellite launches could also prove an important source of cash.
This is “a key step in [Virgin Atlantic’s] successful commercialisation”, said Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, Aabar Investments chief executive.
Virgin said four companies had already put down deposits for “a total of several dozen launches, which would exceed the level of early commitment of any previous new launch vehicle”. The groups include SkyboxImaging, a California-based company selling satellite imagery, and Planetory Resources, an asteroid mining start-up.
If the satellite launch system, dubbed LauncherOne, is successful, Virgin would find itself competing with the likes of NYSE-listed Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, a company started by Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and Paypal, who like Sir Richard is aiming to send civilians into space.
LauncherOne satellites would take off from the same aircraft used for SpaceShip2 launches, and would leave from a New Mexico “spaceport” designed by architect and aviation enthusiast Lord Foster.