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June 28, 2012

WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo spaceplane docked outside the SpaceShip company's hangar FAITH in the Mojave Desert

WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo spaceplane docked outside the SpaceShip company's hangar FAITH in the Mojave Desert

A new initiative from Virgin Galactic could soon see the space tourism company branch out into space haulage. Tipped to be called Virgin Galactic Cargo, the program could see WhiteKnightTwo aircraft carrying small satellites into low Earth orbit, before launching them into space via unmanned rocket.

The existence of the program was let slip by Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director. "Virgin Galactic Cargo will follow soon, watch out for some potential announcements there in the not too distant future regarding small satellites," he said at the Royal Aeronautical Society's third European space tourism conference on June 19. The "not too distant future" has been interpreted as July 11, when Virgin Group founder Richard Branson will give a press conference at Farnborough Air Show.

Speculation that Virgin Galactic Cargo would use WhiteKnightTwo (the carrier aircraft that launches Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane) to put satellites into space stems from Virgin's Galactic LauncherOne program, announced in July 2009, which aimed to do precisely that. That program was discontinued in October 2010.

Should Virgin Galactic Cargo follow the same blueprint, WhiteKnightTwo would be used to carry satellites up to 200 kg (440 pounds) for a fee between US$1 million and $2 million. Under questioning at the Royal Aeronautical Society Attenborough denied that this would be the case, but his reaction in conversation with indicates satellite payloads are still very much on the agenda.

"We've always had other applications in mind," he said. "We started to look at small satellite launchers a couple of years ago, we continued to do quite a lot of work on it and it is still an area we're very interested in it and at some stage we're making some announcements. I can't say more than that." suggests that Virgin Galactic Cargo could be a logical progression of its involvement with DARPA's Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program that seeks to launch 100-pound (45-kg) satellites for under $1 million. Virgin Galactic has won an 18-month contract from the program. "The apparent 22-month hiatus [between the termination of LauncherOne and the forthcoming Virgin Galactic Cargo announcement] was likely because Virgin Galactic saw a better future for a United States-based small satellite launcher project than a U.K. one," concludes.

Branson is also expected to unveil a life-sized SpaceShipTwo mockup at the press conference. The model is expected to include design alterations made in response to the stalling of the spaceplane during a test glide flight in September of last year.

Gizmag will be on hand at the Farnborough Airshow to bring you any announcements from Virgin Galactic.


About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

Of course, Orbital Sciences has been doing this type of thing since the 1980's with their Pegasus launch system.

And Stratolaunch are hiring Scaled Composites to build an even bigger White Knight style launcher, to be paired with a second stage provided by SpaceX.

Jon A.

My only real question is how are they going to carry the third stage and how will it be separated from SS2. Actually i wonder if they use a different suborbital vehicle will it be Space Ship 3?


I'm guessing a multistage rocket would be carried instead of SpaceShip 2.

Jon A.

Great stuff! This is the kind of wonderful, creative thinking that I love to see! I would think that launching a satellite in this way would be enormously cheaper than launching using a rocket. Well done, Sir Richard! You've always been one of my favourite entrepreneurs!


re; mooseman

To be perfectly clear Spaceship 2 is a rocket. But a completely reusable first and second stage will save a lot of money assuming of course that they do not need the "maintenance" that the space shuttle did between flights.

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