On top of doing space tourism, Virgin Galactic aims to launch small satellites under 200 kilograms (440 pounds) into standard orbit via its LauncherOne program by the end of 2016. To achieve that (and hit the $10 mllion target price) Branson’s outfit will not launch rockets from terra firma, but via a carrier plane at a height of around 50,000 feet. So far nary a rocket has flown, but Virgin says it’s making “great progress” after a test this month. It managed to “hotfire” its NewtonThree first-stage rocket for nearly 90 seconds, or about half its projected mission burn time (below).
Considering that Virgin Galactic already has a huge contract to launch WebOne internet satellites in orbit, it still has a lot of work to do. Its manned space project was seriously set back when the suborbital SpaceshipTwo vehicle crashed in the Mojave desert, killing the co-pilot. In addition, the BBC reported last month that the LauncherOne program will need a larger carrier plane than the current WhiteKnightTwo, and Virgin Galactic hasn’t unveiled any new aircraft yet.
However, it’s now doing hotfire tests nearly every month, so the NewtonThree rocket should be ready to fly soon. If successful, the relatively cheap flights will open up satellite launches to a lot more companies and will make internet access more universal. But Richard Branson’s also been known to be a tad too optimistic about the challenges of getting into space.
Source: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)