Virgin Galactic is discussing with organisations in Europe a two-stage expendable satellite launcher, previously referred to as SpaceShipThree, that would be launched from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership.

Speaking to Flight International at the 4th Appleton space conference at the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said that an all-composite two-stage rocket , launched from WK2 using commercial off-the-shelf solid rocket motor technology could put a 200kg (440lb) satellite into orbit.

Whitehorn said his company's study found that a two-stage booster using hybrid rocket motor technology developed for SpaceShipOne could put a 100kg satellite into orbit. He declined to identify the organisations interested in the satellite launcher, but said they were in European countries that had a relevant capability. These are likely be France, Germany and Sweden.

Revealing a new maximum altitude for WK2, Whitehorn said: "It could reach 70,000ft [21,350m], but would not fly that high for launching SpaceShipTwo. A two-stage rocket dropped at [70,000ft] could use a parachute system [to right itself for rocket ignition]. We would not build the satellite launcher."

Virgin Galactic says WK2's payload capability is 17,000kg to 50,000ft. The parachute system is a concept employed by Mojave, California-based Airlaunch. Airlaunch and WK2 designer Scaled Composites have been partners with space transport system developer t/Space.

Airlaunch drop-tested the system using its Quickreach rocket from a Boeing C-17 Globemaster in 2005 and 2006 under a US Department of Defense contract.

Airlaunch personnel were not aware of any Virgin Galactic co-operation when spoke to them at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2008 conference in San Diego in September.

Source: Flight International