July 11, 2012
Virgin Galactic (not Scaled, SNC, SSC, or Stratolaunch) announced today that they are going to build a rocket to launch small satellites, in 225 kg class. Clark Lindsey has convenient notes: air-launched, 2-stage, all-liquid, 4 customers have paid deposits. Today's announcement follows a previous abortive effort to source the launcher in England (from Surrey Sat. IIRC). This project is going to be fully developed in-house by Virgin in Mojave.
Commenters already compared LauncherOne with now-dead SpaceX Falcon 1(e). I will only note that the decision to drop F1e was not necesserily based on its ability to break even, and could have something with the expansion plans of SpaceX. When you are about to launch Dragon, who in the company is going to waste their time on a light launcher, yesterday's tech, fighting for resources?
More interesting is the critique of Pegasus by Elon Musk. How much of it applies to LauncherOne?
- The need to maintain a fixed asset: Still applies, but may be effectively mitigated by the use for VG's suborbital business, assuming said business materializes.
- Marginal safety of air-launch: Still applies in full.
- Excessive complexity of Pegasus: Does not apply. There is no hypersonic airplane anymore, and only two stages.
Or, to quote Elon himself:
If you look at ours in contrast: it is a two stage rocket, no wings, no control surfaces, both stages are the cheapest propellant you can use, LOX/Kerosene.
Hah! The dead English LauncherOne was somewhat reminiscent of Ishim: a 4-stage solid rocket, with motors sourced from legacy contractors. No wonder if was DoA.
The big question now is if VG is capable of delivering on the price point.
UPDATE: Jeff Foust adds:
Airlaunch systems aren’t new, with various concepts having been proposed over the years, as well as Orbital’s Pegasus, which has been flying for over two decades. Pegasus hasn’t won much business because of its price, estimated to be on the order of $30 million. Several years ago, SpaceX was going to open up the smallsat launch market with the Falcon 1, which originally was to launch about 600 kilograms to LEO for $6 million; the payload capacity later declined to about 420 kilograms as the price increased to around $9 million. Later, the Falcon 1e was to provide approximately 1,000 kilograms for $11 million, but the company withdrew the vehicle from the market, citing limited demand. While Virgin does have customers lined up, as it announced today, its prices may have to fall significantly below $10 million per launch to sustain demand over the long term, given the vehicle’s performance and the history of previous smallsat launch efforts.
UPDATE: According to pictures of Sir Richard playing with the model in Farnborough, it does have wings after all. Good grief, he just bought himself a lot of expensive R&D.
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