Richard Branson’s LauncherOne Prepares for Liftoff

Virgin Galactic to take flight with satellites in tow

Photographer: Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Innovator: Richard Branson

Age: 65
Founder of Virgin Group and its spaceflight subsidiary, Virgin Galactic

Form and function
Fired from a jet plane, the LauncherOne rocket lifts satellites weighing as much as 500 pounds into orbit for about $10 million per launch, much less than the $50 million to $60 million most of its competitors charge.

1. Liftoff
The LauncherOne is anchored to the belly of the same jet-powered cargo plane that Virgin uses to transport the passenger spacecraft it’s developing.

Illustration: 731

2. Launch
The rocket drops from the cargo jet at 50,000 feet before first- and second-stage engines take the satellite 300 miles farther up, into low orbit.

Origin
Branson says he conceived of a cheaper, more flexible service for commercial satellite launches in 2006, and a 10-person team began pursuing the idea in earnest in 2012.

Customers
In June, Virgin announced a 39-launch contract with satellite Internet startup OneWeb. Each launch may include more than one satellite.

Funding
In 2011, Virgin received $100 million earmarked for LauncherOne from Aabar Investments, owned by the government of Abu Dhabi.

Rival
Orbital ATK’s jet-launched rockets carry payloads of up to 1,000 pounds for $55 million. Recent cargo: a NASA satellite.

Next Steps
University of California at Los Angeles physics professor Vassilis Angelopoulos says LauncherOne will make his satellite-based research a lot more affordable. “At a price of less than $10 million, that’s really awesome,” he says. Virgin Galactic is ground-testing LauncherOne before the first monthly flights, expected next year. Vice President for Special Projects William Pomerantz says his team is close to finalizing launch contracts in addition to OneWeb’s.

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