Virgin Galactic's bid to enter the rocket launching business got a boost today with its first contract for 39 flights of its LauncherOne system, starting as early as 2017.
The deal – which includes another 100 options – is with UK-based OneWeb, which plans to orbit 900 Airbus Defence & Space-built microsatellites of less than 150kg (331lb) each, to provide affordable broadband internet to rural areas around the world from 2019.
Most units will be launched by Arianespace on 65 Soyuz flights from Kourou, French Guiana and Baikonur, Kazakhstan – with each rocket capable of deploying about 36 satellites. The LauncherOne flights will put one to three of the satellites into low-Earth polar orbit, with a focus on filling in any gaps in the constellation.
Soyuz flights will start in 2018, and OneWeb also has taken options on flights on Ariane 6, the European heavy-lifter being developed by Airbus and Safran to replace Ariane 5 from 2020.
Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides tells Flightglobal that rapid response is the key to the OneWeb deal: “What we'll shine at is replenishment.” OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, presenting the venture in London, said replacing a faulty satellite within 24h could be crucial.
Whitesides says LauncherOne, which is to be air-dropped from the same WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft that launches Virgin Galactic's suborbital passenger craft, will test fly in 18 to 24 months. Rockets will soon go into production in a purpose-built factory in Long Beach, California.
Airbus will design and produce of the first 10 satellites in Toulouse, but full series production will be at a dedicated plant located in the USA. Airbus Group chief executive Tom Enders describes the change from making around a dozen satellites yearly to building 300-400 as “transformative” for the operation.