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Virgin Galactic Announces New Satellite Launch Vehicle

Soulskill posted about 2 years ago | from the commercial-space-industry-turning-into-actual-industry dept.

Space 102

An anonymous reader writes "Virgin Galactic has announced a new craft called LauncherOne, which it will use to put satellites into orbit. 'It appears to leverage some of the hardware already developed for SpaceShipTwo, Virgin's suborbital tourist vehicle. Like SpaceShipTwo, the new rocket rides up underneath Virgin's big carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, to about 50,000 feet. After release, the rocket drops for approximately four seconds before the first stage ignites. After the first stage burns out, a second stage takes the satellite to orbit.' Launching from a moving airplane eliminates many cost and scheduling concerns inherent to ground-based launches, and it's much easier to reach a broad range of trajectories for putting objects into orbit. According to the press release, LauncherOne will get objects up to 225kg into orbit for less than $10 million."

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102 comments

And that's why (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640357)

That's why I bought a Saturn.

Re:And that's why (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640427)

Really? I bought a Pluto. You might call me a hipster, but the UI is better.

Dead ringer for Pegasus (5, Interesting)

benjfowler (239527) | about 2 years ago | (#40640445)

Orbital Sciences build something very similar, called Pegasus. It's air launched, is quite reliable, can throw 440kg into LEO, has a very good launch record -- and costs roughly as much ($11m a pop, if memory serves correctly.)

Branson is nuts if he thinks he can prevail against Orbital in this segment of the launch market.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (4, Insightful)

medcalf (68293) | about 2 years ago | (#40640489)

I suspect Branson's focused on building an infrastructure with common parts. Having suborbital crew (for tourism or research), LEO cargo, and eventually orbital crew with a lot of common components would be a very good foundation for a profitable, ongoing company. He doesn't have to beat every competitor in every sub-market in order to do quite well.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (3, Insightful)

benjfowler (239527) | about 2 years ago | (#40640517)

But to pay for it all, he's got to win cargo launch business first.

He's a brave man all right.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

gstoddart (321705) | about 2 years ago | (#40640777)

Well, given that he's worth around $4 billion or so ... I'd say whatever he's doing it working for him.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640885)

Yup, the best way to become a millionaire is to start off as a billionaire. Ah, what is it about space that attracts child-like egotists with deep pockets?

I doubt he cares (4, Interesting)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#40641065)

When I met Richard Branson he was living on a houseboat on the Thames. Unlike many of the people who have made a lot of money, he didn't start off rich. He seems to have been successful because he is good at delegation, focusses on the bottom line, and looks after his managers. If he wants to sell space tourism, some very clever people will have worked out how it will get to the bottom line.

Re:I doubt he cares (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40641215)

Your story doesn't preclude that he may very well be deluded, insane or poorly advised. Space tourism makes very little sense. Staying inside a tin can is hardly "tourism", and if all you want is the view, hot air balloons and Russian MiG flights are already available.

Re:I doubt he cares (1)

turgid (580780) | about 2 years ago | (#40641515)

Space tourism makes very little sense.

Tourism makes very little sense. After all, the tourist rarely profits financially from their tour.

The beaches of Spain, France, Italy and Greece fill every summer with people not profiting financially from being there.

Re:I doubt he cares (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40641741)

Think about your comparison to find out why you're stupid.

Re:I doubt he cares (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40642553)

A. People go somewhere they haven't been before to see what the fuss is about.

B. People go somewhere they haven't been before to see what the fuss is about.

Your point?

Re:I doubt he cares (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40648655)

Bend down, and have a good look up your own butt.

Re:I doubt he cares (1)

History's Coming To (1059484) | about 2 years ago | (#40644789)

You can't float around in open air zero G for minutes in hot air balloons or MiGs. It's space. You can't do that in a MiG, and you can just about get there in a balloon for several times the price of a Virgin seat. If I had the money I'd be going up. You might call that a waste of money, I call it my life's ambition since I was three.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40643753)

You need deep pockets to even consider going into space, and why do you consider Branson to be child-like?

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640945)

Start off with academic projects that can't afford conventional launch methods, offer launch grants and do enough to gain the market's trust. Same as any business, start out small and once you've got reputation, the big fish will come to you.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

medcalf (68293) | about 2 years ago | (#40641003)

He's already got a launch contract that, if he delivers, will pay for the system's development, based on what was announced at Farnborough, so I'd say that he's already won some cargo launch business.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

l0ungeb0y (442022) | about 2 years ago | (#40641411)

Considering Virgin Galactic started as a venture between Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, I think it's safe to assume that they might have some connections with both the Space Industry and major Corporate interests.

So getting a few early level customers on board shouldn't be too hard.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

osu-neko (2604) | about 2 years ago | (#40643621)

But to pay for it all, he's got to win cargo launch business first.

He's a brave man all right.

Yes, because history has shown there isn't room for more than one car company, more than one aircraft manufacturer, more than one game company, etc. You have to "win", be better than everyone else, or else you can't be profitable at all.

Wait, what?

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (2)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 2 years ago | (#40640547)

I thought this was pretty obvious:

They aren't in this to make money! Not really anyway. All they're doing is recouping some of their research and development costs, costs that are being racked up as they work towards a manned orbital vehicle. Think about it. 250kg isn't much, but it's enough to bring 2 people plus a weeks worth of supplies to LEO. Boost that to 500 kg with the next iteration, get it man certified, and all you really need is a destination to start selling orbital vacations to the super rich. They are years ahead of their competition when it comes to man certified sub-orbital flights and everyone knows that the real money is going to be in making orbit, this is just the next step to that destination.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640557)

Branson is nuts if he thinks he can prevail against Orbital in this segment of the launch market.

Did you read TFA? It specifically talks about Orbital's "struggling" Pegasus XL. Specifically, that it's much more expensive on a per-pound basis.

The article claims that Branson already has customers lined up. Too soon to say what will happen, of course, but I certainly wouldn't call the man "nuts."

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (3, Insightful)

benjfowler (239527) | about 2 years ago | (#40640589)

I certainly did. People with expensive payloads are not that sensitive to price. They ARE however, quite sensitive to getting their stuff to orbit in one piece. Something that Branson has so far failed to demonstrate.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640683)

"Branson is nuts if he thinks he can prevail against Orbital in this segment of the launch market."

So now its just that he hasn't tried it? People are nuts to try stuff? Or nuts to think about trying stuff? Or should this be "lets go once, if it works, keep going, if not, give up and quit". Good thing there's men made of sterner stuff than you, or we'd never get anywhere.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

benjfowler (239527) | about 2 years ago | (#40645033)

I don't care, it's his money.

But it's not obvious to me, hypothetically as a customer, why I'd consider flying a payload on Branson's paper rocket, as opposed to a tried and true launch vehicle that's already been through it's launch failures and cost overruns.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640689)

Right, nobody will ever care about cost savings of $1,000,000 per launch.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640879)

There's no savings if your payload is 226kg.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (3, Informative)

Rei (128717) | about 2 years ago | (#40640737)

Scaled Composites (Branson) built some of the structural components for the Pegasus. It's not an entirely new field for them.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

aquabat (724032) | about 2 years ago | (#40640893)

s/Branson/Rutan/

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 2 years ago | (#40640743)

I've always wondered why air-launches like this aren't more commonly used, it's been known for a long time that they're much more efficient than a conventional ground-launched rocket.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

fotoguzzi (230256) | about 2 years ago | (#40640887)

I had thought the consensus was that air launch was not much of a benefit over ground launch. That is, I thought the need for an air launch to be perfect versus, simply leaving a liquid-fueled rocket clamped to the launch pad was one disadvantage, and the velocity and altitude were not that much of an advantage compared to the difficulties of an air launch.

Obviously air-launch worked for X-1 and X-15, but I never heard of anyone trying to air-launch the space shuttle.

Advantages of Air Launch (2)

DanielRavenNest (107550) | about 2 years ago | (#40645413)

Maybe the consensus among armchair rocket scientists is it's not much benefit. Among real rocket scientists the consensus is it doubles payload over launching the same rocket from the ground. A rocket starting from sea level has the following losses:

* Gravity loss - when you are thrusting vertically, that is not adding to your orbital velocity.
* Drag loss - aerodynamic drag flying through the atmosphere resists your acceleration
* Thrust loss - rocket engines have less thrust at sea level because of air pressure x nozzle exit area.

Launching at jet airplane altitude helps with all of these, you spend more of the flight near horizontal, less drag because you are above most of the air already, and higher thrust. In addition, you get 10 km altitude and 240 m/s free from the carrier airplane.

I ran a study at Boeing on "jet boost", which is similar to air-launch except we dispense with the airplane part, and just strap fighter engines as boosters to a rocket core. We used the same trajectory program as NASA used to plan Shuttle missions, and got our engine data direct from Pratt & Whitney, so I am fairly confident we were getting accurate results.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (5, Informative)

Overzeetop (214511) | about 2 years ago | (#40640891)

A couple of things: Air launches are dangerous - you've got a whole bunch of explosives strapped to the body of a very large aircraft which is carrying humans (pilots, support personnel). This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The FAA makes certification of a new aircraft a monumental task. Orbital found out that just modifying their jet to carry Pegasus required a very lengthy (and expensive) re-certification process. The initial payload is limited to the capacity of the aircraft minus the booster. That's actually a pretty big deal.

Disclaimer: I worked with the NASA group that designed the original PegSat (first Pegasus payload) and I worked for Orbital, but not their flight group - most of what I know is from the trade rags of the time.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

0123456 (636235) | about 2 years ago | (#40641113)

A couple of things: Air launches are dangerous - you've got a whole bunch of explosives strapped to the body of a very large aircraft which is carrying humans (pilots, support personnel). This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The FAA makes certification of a new aircraft a monumental task.

Uh, WK2 will already be cerified for carrying SS2. So while I'm sure there'll be extra work required to prove they can carry an orbital rocket safely, they won't have to start from scratch with a new aircraft.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

gman003 (1693318) | about 2 years ago | (#40642189)

Random idea here - has there been any research into re-using old bombers for this? A B-52 Stratofortress can carry over 30,000kg, and already has most of the fittings to carry and air-drop large, rocket-shaped objects. Would whatever modifications needed be small enough to not require recertification? I'm not an expert, or even knowledgeable about this whole thing, but it seems at least plausible.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (2)

Crash24 (808326) | about 2 years ago | (#40644893)

The B-52 has indeed been used to drop many rocket-propelled aircraft, unmanned rockets and missiles from external pylons - including the X-15 and prototypes of the Pegasus rocket. When compared to civilian aircraft, it's quite expensive to maintain and operate at about $72,000 [wikipedia.org] per flight hour. It might not seem like much compared to the cost of the launches themselves, but these carrier aircraft are flown often for testing/certification purposes. Those recurring costs coupled with the fact that these airframes are decades old mean that it's probably less expensive in the long run to go with a different air launch platform.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

spasm (79260) | about 2 years ago | (#40645865)

The FAA do not control airspace for the entire planet. And unless you include a couple of expensive-to-get-to island territories, the FAA don't control any airspace within 24 degrees of the equator. Pegasus was a NASA project and hence more or less had to launch from US territory for political reasons; Virgin is a UK-based company headed by a UK citizen. Virgin Space may be based in the US at the moment due to convenient access to technical talent, but they have no real reason to launch in the US at all, let alone if the FAA start making things more than usually inconvenient.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

TomJetland (2576173) | about 2 years ago | (#40660385)

Perhaps the aircraft should be a drone? Then no humans would be at risk, plus it might prove marginally cheaper to operate and save on dead weight.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 2 years ago | (#40641137)

Air launches may be good for small cargo, but they are abysmal at heavy lift.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (2, Insightful)

aquabat (724032) | about 2 years ago | (#40640871)

Yeah, it must really suck to be Richard Branson, always having really cool Ideas and then going out and making them happen. I wish I was that nuts.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

l0ungeb0y (442022) | about 2 years ago | (#40641349)

"Branson is nuts if he thinks he can parlay a Music Retail Store into a multi-billion dollar empire"

Considering his track record in even more established and crowded markets, I'd say he has a good chance of success here.
Believe it or not, there is room for competition in ANY market and the results of competition are typically positive.

Re:Dead ringer for Pegasus (1)

gizmo_mathboy (43426) | about 2 years ago | (#40641861)

There is a difference as well in the carrier aircraft.

Pegasus looks to be using a commercial aircraft, Lockheed Stargazer per Wikipedia. It has to be retrofitted to accommodate Pegasus.

Now, Virgin Galactic has WhiteKnight2 which is purpose built to carry a craft bound for suborbital, or orbital flight.

There is a trade-off there. The Stargazer could in theory be cheaper since it is one of hundreds but has an increased cost for retrofit.

WhiteKnight2 might cost more because it's unique, but it can handle getting its payload to altitude better, theoretically.

I used to think Branson was just a glory hound... (5, Interesting)

Picass0 (147474) | about 2 years ago | (#40640473)

... and to some extent he is as the CEO and the figurehead for Virgin. But he does ambitious stuff nobody else is doing.

I hope he makes mad profits in the space business and other companies see the potential.

"Glory hound" (2)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#40641103)

I've been told his businesses have to make a business case for every publicity stunt he does, and they have to fund it. Think of it as saving some of the money spent on expensive celebrity endorsements by being your own celebrity, and it makes a lot of sense.

Re:I used to think Branson was just a glory hound. (1)

History's Coming To (1059484) | about 2 years ago | (#40644859)

Ever read any Stephen Baxter? He's got a character called Reid Malenfant who's very Branson-esque, with some trampling-over-regulation thrown in for good measure. Thinking about it, I suspect Branson's main challenge has been red tape.

me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (1)

peter303 (12292) | about 2 years ago | (#40640477)

Personal space travel?

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (0)

RapidEye (322253) | about 2 years ago | (#40640527)

Might want to pack a parachute as well...

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (1)

Rei (128717) | about 2 years ago | (#40640747)

Maybe for something the size of a dog or smaller. At $10m a pop.

Most of the mass of a spacecraft is not the mass of its occupants.

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (1)

0123456 (636235) | about 2 years ago | (#40641063)

Most of the mass of a spacecraft is not the mass of its occupants.

But for a minimal capsule you just need a heat shield, a parachute and a space suit. Launch it into a low enough orbit and it will re-enter automatically after a few hours. Shape it properly and aerodynamic drag will ensure it points in the right direction during re-entry.

200kg would be a pretty tight budget, but it could probably be done provided the passenger wasn't obese.

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (2)

camperdave (969942) | about 2 years ago | (#40641163)

Ditch the space suit. If your capsule is going to fail it is going to fail catastrophically, and if it fails catastrophically, a space suit ain't gonna help.

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (1)

0123456 (636235) | about 2 years ago | (#40641237)

Ditch the space suit. If your capsule is going to fail it is going to fail catastrophically, and if it fails catastrophically, a space suit ain't gonna help.

The space suit means you don't need to provide a life support system for the entire cabin, so it's probably lighter. But you'd have to consider both options in the design.

I don't think you could just fill the cabin with air and launch because temperature variations between the night and day side of the orbit would probably require heating and cooling. If you can get away with that then ditching the suit might make sense.

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (1)

History's Coming To (1059484) | about 2 years ago | (#40644899)

The point is, it's orbital. You'd run out of consumables before you needed to worry about re-entry, just aim for a recovery craft. I'll place a bet here and now that somebody does an orbit in a Red Bull branded capsule (complete with ring-pull) before 2025.

Re:me, spacesuits, some beers less than 225 killos (1)

History's Coming To (1059484) | about 2 years ago | (#40644871)

Of course not, they're all weightless. Badam tzzz. Sorry, couldn't resist.

Why is this novel? (3, Informative)

jeffmeden (135043) | about 2 years ago | (#40640509)

I am not an expert but some quick calculations reveal that if they can launch 225kg payload for $10M that puts it at pretty close to the same cost other vehicles have been providing for years, like an Athena 2 or Taurus launch vehicle (which can also support much heavier payloads). Is this unique in that it is specifically for smaller payloads? Or, is the ability to do launches "wherever, whenever"? This has interesting implications but doesnt seem like it would shake up the market too much given that most satellites are planned out pretty far in advance of going to orbit.

Calculate this (5, Insightful)

SmallFurryCreature (593017) | about 2 years ago | (#40640667)

Say you got a 200kg sattelite you want in orbit. How do you get it to launch on a normal rocket? Not alone for sure, it may be the same kilo price but those rockets are not going to go up for just you. Which means you got to fit yourself around the schedules and requirements of others. Want an odd orbit? Sorry, our rocket ain't going there.

Sending cargo by ocean vessel is insanely cheap. Pity if you got a parcel to be delivered to Switzerland. The right vehicle, at the right cost.

Lets just assume for a second that a self-made billionaire knows more about making money then all of slashdot put together.

Re:Calculate this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640789)

It would be poor logic to carry that assumption out to the extent of presuming that said billionaire is also an expert in rocketry and ballistics. Much like his heady finances, he probably hires folks to handle these problems.

A self-made billionaire who thinks he is both the master of his trade and eternally relevant, will not be a billionaire for long.

Re:Calculate this (2)

lister king of smeg (2481612) | about 2 years ago | (#40642623)

he may not be a brilliant engineer but he has the money to buy lot of them. They can tell him the cost and he can decide whether or not it is worth the effort and money. he obviously has.

Re:Calculate this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40647567)

Branson freely admits that he's pretty useless at most things, but one thing he is very good at is picking the right people to do the things he's useless at.

Luckily, that particular skill is the one that made him a billionaire.

Re:Why is this novel? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40641663)

I guess it depends on how much demand there is, I personally have no idea. But I would think that if demand is high, a launch method with a more flexible schedule would be pretty desirable.

Also I would think that this method would be less impacted by the weather since they can move to a different area to launch. Less delays means more launches.

Re:Why is this novel? (1)

gizmo_mathboy (43426) | about 2 years ago | (#40641885)

But there is greater flexibility with Pegasus and Virgin Galatic's vehicle.

The available launch times should be much greater than a standard rocket launch.

$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (3, Informative)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40640569)

$10M for 225 kg is more than $40000 per kg. That's even more than Shuttle's effective price-to-orbit for its payload. Once they get their price at least 10 times down then they can start thinking about competing with real rockets.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (3, Interesting)

Rei (128717) | about 2 years ago | (#40640781)

Really low-mass spacecraft launches are more expensive per kilogram; that's just the way it works. But it does go to show that all of the people on Slashdot several years ago talking about how Branson is just a hop, skip, and a jump from cheap orbital space travel because he made a suborbital joyride, and how their prices were going to blow everyone's away because the joyride cost hundreds of thousands per person instead of millions ... well, I hope this is a dose of reality as to how much more expensive and difficult orbital travel is than suborbital.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40640987)

Well, it's still an expensive joyride. Now with a toy rocket attached.

Reality is quite simple - it CAN NOT SCALE. There's simply no sense in strapping a full-scale rocket to an airplane, additional dV from airplane start is less than 300m/s (from the required 8km/s to enter a stable orbit).

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40641085)

You're not accounting for losses to air resistance which are mitigated by launching from a much higher altitude. They are a major reason why plane launches are even feasible.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (2)

david.given (6740) | about 2 years ago | (#40641337)

Reality scales very nicely, thank you very much --- the one I live in looks as if it's at least 90 billion light years across!

More seriously, Branson's design is very similar to Orbital Science's Pegasus [wikipedia.org] air-launched vehicle, and they're doing very nicely with it.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40641519)

Erm. That's just 400kg to LEO for $10M.

The good old R-7 family rockets can get 7tons to LEO for roughly the same price. SpaceX aims for $1100 per kg to LEO and currently achieve around $2000 per kg to LEO. That's more than an order of magnitude cheaper than these skyrockets.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (2)

david.given (6740) | about 2 years ago | (#40641645)

Yes --- but what if you don't want to get seven tonnes to LEO?

These launchers are specifically designed for the case when you have a small satellite which you want to launch into a funny orbit, which means you're not going to find anyone else to split the launch costs with. In this situation it's worth paying more per kilogram so that you end up paying less total.

Remember, the big launchers won't scale down any more than the small ones will scale up...

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40642117)

But what are you going to do with 400kg on a LEO? That's barely enough for a spy/imaging satellite and little else. Even communication satellites are not feasible - as they won't work during the night.

You can put stuff into a Molniya orbit fairly easy from LEO, but it'll cut your 400kg budget even further.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

david.given (6740) | about 2 years ago | (#40642979)

Take a look at the wikipedia page I linked to; it has a launch history.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40642173)

While I admit having not performed basic arithmetic in at least several minutes may put me at a practical disadvantage in arguing this point, I am nevertheless relatively certain that $10M to orbit costs $10M to orbit, regardless of the lift capacity of the vehicle. Your hypothetical suggests absolutely no advantage to the aircraft-launch versus a traditionally-launched vehicle.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

khallow (566160) | about 2 years ago | (#40644327)

I am nevertheless relatively certain that $10M to orbit costs $10M to orbit, regardless of the lift capacity of the vehicle.

Relative certainty isn't enough in this business. Some orbits are cheaper than other orbits because they're closer to the actual orbit you want to have. An orbit that requires you to do extensive boosting is going to either take a booster engine (and hence, less mass for your actual payload, assuming you don't launch more mass in compensation) or consume onboard maneuvering propellant which shortens the lifespan of your satellite (which can't maintain as long its orbit against air resistance and dodging space junk).

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

lgw (121541) | about 2 years ago | (#40642055)

The particular plane he usues won't scale, but the idea is fin: a re-usable first stage that decouples at a speed an altitude where it can be air-breathing and won't need heat shielding for re-entry.

"Hyper soar" style planes have potential here, as a resuable first stage, if the underlying tech (materials science, mostly) matures enough to become reasonably priced. Reach the limits of speed and elevation (the latter is what mostly matters here) that are practical with an air breathing engine and aitcraft control surfaces, and I think it's a solid approach.

Remember, it takes a heck of a lot of fuel (plus structure for dynamic load issues) to overcome air resistance and simply add elevation; velocity downrange is not the only significant energy need.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40642163)

Most of air resistance happens during the later stages, far beyond the ~10km realistic airplane ceiling. I think you'll get more advantage from not having to start from a vertical position.

I actually would LOVE to see real spaceplanes that are SSTO or SSTO+small_booster, maybe Skylon spaceplane would fly one day...

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

lgw (121541) | about 2 years ago | (#40644309)

Most of air resistance happens during the later stages, far beyond the ~10km realistic airplane ceiling

Well, that ws sort of my entire point: it makes sense to have an air-breathing, air-controlled first stage, but not a traditional airplane, for the first stage. And taking your first stage with you into orbit just seems silly to me.

"Real SSTO Spaceplanes" remain about the silliest idea I've seen. I swear, geeks are in love with them because they look good on the covers of SF boooks or something. The first stage, where you need all your high thrust-to-mass, dont care about ISP stuff, tends to need quite heavy structure, as that's where you're biggest fuel weight and highest stresses tned to be - why carry a bunch of extra fuel in later stages to haul al that deadweight around? And why pile even more weight on that to heat-shield the first stage for reentry?

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

waimate (147056) | about 2 years ago | (#40644477)

why carry a bunch of extra fuel in later stages to haul al that deadweight around?

It's not quite as simple as this, but the answer to your question is "because fuel is really really cheap, and flight hardware is really really expensive".

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40644775)

"Real" SSTO spaceplanes would actually use LESS fuel per kg to LEO than a conventional rocket.

The first stage, where you need all your high thrust-to-mass, dont care about ISP stuff, tends to need quite heavy structure, as that's where you're biggest fuel weight and highest stresses tned to be - why carry a bunch of extra fuel in later stages to haul al that deadweight around? And why pile even more weight on that to heat-shield the first stage for reentry?

You're thinking wrong. Spaceplanes do NOT need a high thrust-to-mass first stage because they can use aerodynamic lift to gently accelerate to about Mach 5 using ONLY hydrogen fuel and atmospheric oxygen. That'll require only a fraction of fuel for of a conventional rocket. Additionally, a spaceplane would run its engines in a much MUCH gentler mode than engines on a conventional rocket (remember, much less thrust-to-weight ratio!). So you would be able to actually _reuse_ them without disassembling everything for checkups after each flight.

Additionally, conventional chemical rockets are a dead end. They're basically as good as they can theoretically get (with known fuels). Mass production might be able to lower prices somewhat, but we're still stuck at about $500-$1000 per kg to LEO. Spaceplanes theoretically would be able to lower this to perhaps $50-$100 per kg.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

lgw (121541) | about 2 years ago | (#40651597)

OK, great, fine. But now you're at the edge of the atmosphere, now what? There's a lot of size and mass involved in that plane that got you there - leaving it behind at that point will be far cheaper than dragging it along for the rest of the flight. And up to this point you don't need much in the way of re-entry shielding, which is good because your plane has this large surface area, with complex control surfaces, and heat shielding all of that is a bitch.

Spaceplanes make a fine first stage no question about it. But taking your airplane-shaped thing into orbit and back is just trying to make life look like SciFi - it serves no actual purpose and is quite expensive to do. When the advantage of air-breathing falls away, the plane-shaped part should to. You can still re-use that first stage - as long as you don't get cocky it's still basically an airplane and should have a similar maintenance cycle.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 2 years ago | (#40651683)

OK, great, fine. But now you're at the edge of the atmosphere, now what?

You switch your air-breathing engines to pure rocket engine mode by turning on oxidizer supply. Since you've avoided carrying oxygen for what effectively is your first stage you have a VERY high overall specific impulse (probably more than 3000 seconds!) - there's no need for the second stage with its own engines. There's also no need for complex connectivity system for the second stage, no need for specialized return craft and so on.

It's actually within the realm of possibility to have a fully reusable spacecraft, more akin to airplanes than rockets. That would revolutionize the space travel.

Re:$10M for 225 kg? Are they JOKING? (1)

Muad'Dave (255648) | about 2 years ago | (#40641279)

Really low-mass spacecraft launches are more expensive per kilogram; that's just the way it works.

Not if you're AMSAT - we often get low mass launches for free* as space-rated ballast.

(*Free to launch, but not free to certify space-worthy).

Concorde replacement? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640597)

I can't say announceing a commercial satellite capability's much of a surprise. I just wonder when Branson's going to announce a New York-Tokyo or Los Angeles-London passenger route?

Since the Concorde was mothballed the uber-wealthy have had private jets at their disposal, and that's certainly more convenient then aerial cattle-cars but they don't go much faster and if time's money the time of the wealthy is reduced to the same value as that of us proles by the limitations of current jet aircraft technology.

Would people who could afford the Concorde pony up to be wisked around the globe in less time then it currently takes to cross a medium-sized country? I'd say probably so.

Re:Concorde replacement? (3, Interesting)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 2 years ago | (#40640729)

The Concorde will never be replaced. It was horrendously expensive and in the same league of complexity as the SR-71. It was given to private industry for a song and a dance after a horrifically expensive government-funded development and build process. The Concorde was always horrifically expensive to fly on, more than first-class tickets on conventional airliners.

The super-rich will have supersonic private jets soon enough, but there will certainly never be another supersonic airliner. Us proles will never fly supersonic, although Boeing is working on a near-sonic design that could actually make sense.

Re:Concorde replacement? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40640931)

there will certainly never be another supersonic airliner

"Never" is probably longer than you think.

Re:Concorde replacement? (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 2 years ago | (#40641243)

Nobody alive today will live to see it for sure - or their children, either. Maybe with fusion power and some radical unforeseen leap in battery technology that could make an electric airliner possible, but fossil fuels are drying up (not that we can afford to keep burning them anyways) and large-scale biofuel use won't get along with a heavily populated planet.

The economics also don't make sense. With today's fuel prices, only a couple thousand of the world's hyper-rich could afford such a thing (that's why the Concorde was canned) and they'll have private jets of some kind anyways, who would use it?

More complex than an SR-71 (1)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#40641141)

There is a story of an SR-71 being asked to move away from a commercial flight lane because a passenger aircraft was coming through...the pilot later remarked that they were all tooled up with near-space suits in a military vehicle with a terrible turnaround time on the ground, and they were overtaken by a commercial aircraft full of people in their ordinary clothes.

It was still a flop, though.

Re:Concorde replacement? (2)

arpad1 (458649) | about 2 years ago | (#40641501)

Of course the Concorde will be replaced. Or at least its function will be replaced and Branson's venture may, or may not, have what it takes.

Also, I have serious reservations about supersonic anything that doesn't carry bombs. So far the technology's just not there to build supersonic aircraft for civilian use at a price that's not nuts where as Branson might have the makings of much faster travel at a lower price.

As, or perhaps more important, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition like a civilian supersonic exective jet. Branson can sell joy rides at a profit, which he's already doing. That helps amortize the cost of a satellite launch capability which sets the stage, maybe, for a long distance, ballistic passenger/package service. When it absatively, possilutily has to be there in ninety minutes or less Branson Ballistic delivers!

With a supersonic zeckujet you have lots of previous work to draw upon but you have the hurdle of building a commerically-viable supersonic, multi-passenger jet to overcome. So far, no one's managed that trick or even come close. It just may that bypassing the atmosphere is easier then going through it.

Re:Concorde replacement? (1)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about 2 years ago | (#40647265)

Also, I have serious reservations about supersonic anything that doesn't carry bombs. So far the technology's just not there to build supersonic aircraft for civilian use at a price that's not nuts where as Branson might have the makings of much faster travel at a lower price.

Branson wanted to buy the Concorde fleet when BA and Air France decided to stop flying them. He certainly thought he could make it profitable. BA didn't want him to have any though as they are his biggest competitor and the prestige would have been huge. They still remember the idiotic decision to remove the British flag from their aircraft's tails, at which point Virgin immediately added it to theirs.

Concorde would have be a success if it wasn't for idiots banning it due to the sonic booms. They had a lot of orders that were cancelled once some US airports decided not to allow Concorde to use them. Actually I think the real reason in many cases was that the US was trying (and failing) to develop its own supersonic passenger aircraft.

Re:Concorde replacement? (1)

isorox (205688) | about 2 years ago | (#40650215)

Branson wanted to buy the Concorde fleet when BA and Air France decided to stop flying them.

Bullshit, Branson claimed to want to buy them as a PR stunt. He claimed to want to buy BMI too, but never put his money where his mouth was.

Actually I think the real reason in many cases was that the US was trying (and failing) to develop its own supersonic passenger aircraft.

Agreed, protectionism economics (of course Concorde was developed by EU governments so was hardly "clean")

Re:Concorde replacement? (1)

tragedy (27079) | about 2 years ago | (#40642875)

Actually, the Concorde wasn't quite as horrifically expensive as you seem to think. The ticket prices were so high because they found out that people expected them to be very high, so they raised them to what the market would bear. The Concorde was retired because the one crash of a Concorde along with September 11th caused irrational fear about flying in it. Also, although the Concorde was profitable, the airlines realized that the people flying on it would be buying first-class tickets on sub-sonic aircraft if there were no Concorde. Since the Concorde was the only supersonic passenger aircraft, they didn't need to worry about losing the passengers to the non-existent competition.

Overall you're probably right that the Concorde will not be replaced. At least, not in the short term. The industry is too closed for the economics to work out.

The interesting tie between the Concorde and the fine article is that, when the Concorde was being retired, Richard Branson offered to buy them to continue their operation, but was refused.

about time (1)

slashmydots (2189826) | about 2 years ago | (#40640727)

People have been saying for the last couple decades that anything going to space should be flown up as high as possible with a high altitude plane then launched from there. The weight vs fuel needed ratio goes way up because then you don't need more fuel to lift the weight of the fuel over and over in some weird logarithm thing that end up with lots and lots of fuel needed. Of course, that didn't stop them from putting a relatively ridiculous price tag on it. Isn't the whole marketing point that it's cheaper than other methods? That doesn't look cheaper to me.

Re:about time (2)

medcalf (68293) | about 2 years ago | (#40641049)

Well, except that they lose a lot of the efficiency by carrying the vehicle up already fueled. The ideal from a cost standpoint, particularly because of what it does to the structure of the spacecraft being carried, is to carry it to altitude without at least the oxidizer, then transfer the oxidizer in flight. Means you need a tanker as well as a carrier aircraft (unless the spacecraft can operate as a jet in the atmosphere, which introduces other complexities), but it makes your vehicle structure lighter and thus dramatically increases how much cargo you can loft for a given size vehicle. This in turn dramatically reduces the cost per unit mass per flight. Rocketplane had it right; they were just too early to make it work as a business.

Worth every penny! (4, Funny)

Grayhand (2610049) | about 2 years ago | (#40641067)

"LauncherOne will get objects up to 225kg into orbit for less than $10 million."

That's just enough to orbit my mother in law.

Re:Worth every penny! (4, Funny)

camperdave (969942) | about 2 years ago | (#40641549)

"LauncherOne will get objects up to 225kg into orbit for less than $10 million."

That's just enough to orbit my mother in law.

I presume you mean to send your mother in law into orbit, and not to send a 225kg object looping around her.

Re:Worth every penny! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40647603)

His momma so fat...

Max Q (1)

dthx1138 (833363) | about 2 years ago | (#40641223)

Despite the $/kg numbers, air launch IS more efficient than ground launch, and over time (after the initial cost of development has been diluted), should be significantly cheaper if only because of the fuel savings. Remember, rockets have to carry their oxidizer in big ass tanks that may also need big ass cryogenic cooling systems. Airplanes steal it from the atmosphere.

The effect is so pronounced because a plane is able to carry the rocket past what would be the Max Q [wikipedia.org] point for ground launch, usually around 35,000 to 45,000 feet, which is the point where dynamic pressure (and thus fuel usage) is highest.

Dynamic pressure goes up with increasing velocity and down with thinning atmosphere, which is why it's not just at sea level.

passenger service? (1)

arpad1 (458649) | about 2 years ago | (#40641295)

I wonder when Branson will announce the intent to start a passanger service?

Ever since the Concorde was grounded there hasn't been anyway for the uber-rich to get from here to there faster then us proles. I'm pretty sure there are folks who'd pay more then a few dollars to get from New York to Paris and back with time left over to flog their yacht crew for letting the boat get wet.

Re:passenger service? (2)

isorox (205688) | about 2 years ago | (#40650191)

I wonder when Branson will announce the intent to start a passanger service?

Ever since the Concorde was grounded there hasn't been anyway for the uber-rich to get from here to there faster then us proles. I'm pretty sure there are folks who'd pay more then a few dollars to get from New York to Paris and back with time left over to flog their yacht crew for letting the boat get wet.

Concorde tickets were remarkably cheap - not much more than a first class fare on a real (non-american) airline -- SQ, BA, EK etc. Think about a situation where your factory, costing $100k/hour, is broken, and you need an expert person, or a part, to get there ASAP. A 3 hours flight saves $500k rather than choosing an 8 hour flight, so a $100k ticket would be well worth it.

Sadly the lack of reasonable length journeys were blocked politically (unable to offer supersonic JFK to LAX in 2 hours gate-gate for example), and technologically (range quite low -- can't do none stop Europe to Far East), so the number airborne never materialised to keep maintenance costs down.

It wouldn't surprise me if supersonic private jets come along at some point in the next 50 years, and thus smaller, targetted, scheduled routes (like the LCY-JFK run)

Carry an X-37? (3, Insightful)

xanthos (73578) | about 2 years ago | (#40641361)

Dug around in Wikipedia a little and found that White Knight 2 has a carrying capacity of 35,000 lbs (~16k kilos). The X-37B is listed at 11,000 (5k) fully loaded, the crewcab version X-37C should be under 25,000 and even the old pre-composite X-15 was 34,000(15.4k). Now the X-15 was far shy of orbital velocity, but rocket design has advanced some in the 40+ years since the end of the program and building a standby vehicle for quick launch to orbit might be getting feasible.

I, like many, have mourned the decline of manned space exploration. However, I see the work of Virgin Galactec and SpaceX as reasons to hope that not all is dead.

Maybe the parts are coming together.

-Xanthos

Re:Carry an X-37? (1)

hackertourist (2202674) | about 2 years ago | (#40646945)

WhiteKnightTwo can put 225 kg into orbit according to TFA. It may be able to carry the X-37B, but not the X-37B plus the giant booster it needs to get into orbit.

Re:Carry an X-37? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40655893)

It does carry the X-37. http://www.suasnews.com/2010/10/2374/x-37b-missing-again/ [suasnews.com]
But as the reader below notes - it can't carry the necessary X-37 space booster as well.

A bit re-engineering and you might not be far off - but to do useful shit up there, the X-37 needs manoeuvring fuel too...

Re:Carry an X-37? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40657527)

The X-37 requires an Atlas V rocket (334500 kg, and not made meaningfully smaller by the pitiful boost in altitude and speed of an air launch) to reach orbit. It's been air dropped by a White Knight, but that's only useful for testing the landing functionality.

To air-launch an X-37 would require an aircraft with about 23 times the carrying capacity of a White Knight, with all the infrastructure of a launch pad aboard, and the willingness to fly around carrying huge amounts of rocket fuel and sacrifice the entire vehicle in case of an abort.

SpaceX just launched a Falcon 9 with about 10000 kg of total payload to orbit. Their first attempt was an abort due to anomalous pressure readings in an engine. They swapped out a valve and launched again a few days later...if this was an air launch attempt, an abort would have been a total loss.

charge for launch ! = cost for launch (1)

frith01 (1118539) | about 2 years ago | (#40642243)

Some people are thinking that the advertised cost of 10m per 225kg means that his costs are the same as Pegasus. They do not realize that branson would not start in the market at his lowest profitable point. If market price is 20k per kg, but I can do it for 5k, I'll just take the extra profit until the market catches up!

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