Virgin Galactic is already busily spearheading a whole new industry in space tourism with SpaceShipTwo. But today at the Farnborough air show the British company revealed it's also ready to disrupt a long-standing industry and take it in wholly new directions: It's formally unveiled LauncherOne, a tiny cost-effective rocket system to put small satellites into low Earth orbit. It could change your life sooner than you think. Really.
LauncherOne leverages the expertise that Virgin Galactic has been building up with its space tourism business, and stands on the innovations made by Scaled Composites when it launched SpaceShipOne on its historic X Prize-winning flight. That's because it uses exactly the same air-launched model for the rocket, with a carrier aircraft lifting the spacecraft high into the atmosphere before dropping it and letting its engines fire it into space. LauncherOne actually employs the same WhiteKnightTwo launch aircraft used for the space tourism flights—which is a proven, existing airframe that instantly reduces costs.
By flying like this, LauncherOne doesn't need a big, expensive first stage rocket loaded with fuel to get it off the ground. Instead it requires just two boost stages to take it from launch into space, and then into orbit. This simplifies the avionics and engineering needed to make the thing fly, lowering the cost and reducing the chances that things can go wrong. Ground-launched rockets have all sorts of complex range-safety matters to deal with, involving clearing airspace and, sometimes, the sea in the general launch trajectory because the rocket might fail during flight. Because LauncherOne is launched from an aircraft, it can avoid many of these logistical issues, and it also allows for payloads to be more easily put into unusual orbits—the aircraft simply has to point it in a different launch direction.
The upshot of all of this cost-saving is that according to Virgin, a LauncherOne vehicle can put 500 pounds of payload into orbit for "below $10 million." That works out cheaper than its likely biggest competitor Orbital's Pegasus XL—another air-launched vehicle—and Virgin intends it to be able to reach the "world's lowest prices" for launches.
And that's just for single-satellite launch scenarios. There's no reason that LauncherOne couldn't be configured to release a swarm of low Earth orbit microsatellites in a single launch, and this is one of the most promising areas of space science right now.
In fact, when revealing the vehicle's parameters, Virgin boss Richard Branson even remarked that with LauncherOne, "nations, states, cities and even universities and schools will be able to launch dedicated satellites that will answer their diverse needs." Satellite launches have nearly always been massively expensive, risky and fall within the purview of government-backed operations, or via defense companies, and even recent commercial space systems have been very expensive—until Virgin's effort.
Right there is the part where your life will be affected, although it's difficult to predict how much things will change and how fast. But to see what this could mean, imagine if a news organization like CNN stumped up the millions necessary to fly its own small imaging satellite—or possibly even a small fleet of them. When a global disaster occurs, or a breaking news story hits, CNN may then be able to deliver live or near-time satellite imaging of the event. (And they may even get their facts right.) Because Virgin is a private entity, it's even possible that other startups may leverage its potential to do their own climate change science, or space-based observations of almost everything on Earth from traffic congestion in cities to tracking ships, or selling very real-time imagery to companies like Apple or Google to drive the "satellite view" that we're all getting used to using for navigating around with our smartphones.
And lest you think this is all just pop science mumbo jumbo, VG has already signed up enough launch partners for "several dozen" launches and aims to be commercially operating by 2016.
[Image: Virgin Galactic]