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Virgin Galactic considers new satellite design

Virgin Galactic's proposed LauncherOne rocket may orbit a new mini satellite designed specifically for the launch vehicle to increase the payload's useful mass for power, propulsion or instruments.

In conventional rockets adaptors integrate a spacecraft with the launcher but that means useful payload mass is reduced. A decision about a LauncherOne specific satellite could come following internal studies or Virgin Galactic's expected mid-2010 request for industry proposals.

A previous Virgin Galactic study concluded an all-composite two-stage rocket, air launched by the WhiteKnight Two carrier aircraft, could orbit a 200kg (440lb) satellite.

Whatever the decision Virgin Galactic's target launch price is $2 million and the spaceline's president Will Whitehorn told the International Astronautical Congress in Daejeon that the service could be operating a year after his suborbital tourism was up and running.

Over the next six to seven months Whitehorn's new general manager for small satellite launch, Adam Baker, will develop a business plan. Speaking to Aerojet, Northrop Grumman and others Baker will investigate whether the rocket is outsourced or produced in-house, what type of launcher it will be, if its expendable or reusable, and if its payload will be designed specifically for LauncherOne.

He will also examine possible co-operation with small satellite companies Virgin Galactic has worked with, Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), Sierra Nevada and Swedish Space, all of which could also be future LauncherOne customers.

Baker started work for Virgin Galactic on 2 October, moving from SSTL after eight years.

If the business plan is approved LauncherOne's development will benefit from $100 million from Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments. An earlier satellite launch market study was produced for Aabar with the help of SSTL.

The Arab investment company announced a $280 million investment in Virgin Galactic's tourism venture on 28 July.

Whitehorn also told Flightglobal that the Virgin group's joint venture with Scaled Composites, The SpaceShip Company, was now employing a person every week in a recruitment drive and a tender had been released for building its second hangar at Mojave air and spaceport. This is where future WhiteKnight Twos will be manufactured.

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