Virgin Galactic

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Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic.png
Founded 2004
Operating bases Spaceport America
Parent company Virgin Group
Headquarters Las Cruces, New Mexico
Key people Richard Branson
George Whitesides (CEO)
Steve Isakowitz (President)

Virgin Galactic is a British[1] commercial spaceflight company within the Virgin Group with ambitious plans to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions, and orbital launches of small satellites. Further in the future, Virgin Galactic hopes to offer orbital human spaceflights as well.[2] Virgin Galactic's spacecraft is air launched from a 'buddy' aeroplane.


Commercial spaceflight locations[edit]

In 2008 it was announced that test launches for its fleet of two White Knight Two mother ships and five or more SpaceShipTwo tourist suborbital spacecraft would take place from the Mojave Spaceport, where Scaled Composites was constructing the spacecraft.[3][dated info] An international architectural competition for the design of Virgin Galactic's operating base, Spaceport America in New Mexico, saw the contract awarded to URS and Foster + Partners architects.[4] In the same year Virgin Galactic announced that it would eventually operate in Europe out of Spaceport Sweden[5][dated info] or even from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.[6]

While the original plan called for flight operations to transfer from the California desert to the new spaceport upon completion of the spaceport,[3] Virgin Galactic has yet to complete the development and test program of SpaceShipTwo. In October 2010, the 3,000 m (10,000 ft) runway at Spaceport America was opened, with SpaceShipTwo "VSS Enterprise" shipped to the site carried underneath the fuselage of Virgin Galactic's Mother Ship Eve.[7]

Key personnel[edit]

Dave (David) Mackay, former RAF test pilot, was named chief pilot for Virgin Galactic in 2011[8] and chief test-pilot.[9] Keith "Coma" Colmer, a former USAF test pilot, was hired as a second test-pilot in 2011,[10] working in the test program with Scaled Composites.[11] Steve Isakowitz was appointed as Virgin Galactic's first president in June 2013.[12]

Commencement of space flights[edit]

In July 2008 Richard Branson predicted the maiden space voyage would take place within 18 months.[13] In October 2009, Virgin Galactic announced that initial flights would take place from Spaceport America based on a "safety-driven schedule," which it hoped to achieve "within two years."[14] Later that year, Scaled Composite announced that White Knight Two's first SpaceShipTwo captive flights would be in early 2010.[15] Both aircraft did fly together in March 2010.[16]

On December 7, 2009, SpaceShipTwo was unveiled at the Mojave Spaceport.[17][18] Branson told the 300 people attending, each of whom had booked rides at $200,000 each, that flights would begin “in 2011”. However, in April 2011, Branson announced further delays, saying “I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship and heading off into space”.[19] By February 2012, SpaceShipTwo had completed 15 test flights attached to White Knight Two, and an additional 16 glide tests, the last of which took place in September 2011.[20] A rocket-powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo finally took place on April 29, 2013, with an engine burn of 16 seconds duration. The brief flight began at an altitude of 47,000 feet, and reached a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet. While the SS2 achieved a speed of Mach 1.2 (920 mph),[21] this was less than half the 2,000 mph speed predicted by Richard Branson. SpaceShipTwo’s second supersonic flight achieved a speed of 1,100 mph for 20 seconds; while this was an improvement, it fell far short of the 2,500 mph for 70 seconds required to carry six passengers into space. However, Branson still announced his spaceship would be capable of "launching 100 satellites every day".[22]

On May 14, 2013, Richard Branson stated on Virgin Radio Dubai's Kris Fade Morning Show that he would be aboard the first public flight of SpaceShipTwo, which had again been re-scheduled, this time to December 25, 2013.[23] "Maybe I’ll dress up as Father Christmas", Branson said.[24] The third rocket powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo took place on January 10, 2014 and successfully tested the spaceship’s Reaction Control System (RCS) and the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said “We are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014".[25]

In September of 2014, Richard Branson described the intended date for the first commercial flight as February or March of 2015; by the time of this announcement, a new plastic-based fuel had yet to be ignited in-flight.[26] To date, the three test flights of the SS2 have only reached an altitude of around 71,000 ft, approximately 13 miles; in order to receive a Federal Aviation Administration licence to carry passengers, the craft needs to complete test missions at full speed and 62-mile height. Following the announcement of further delays, UK newspaper The Sunday Times reported that Branson faced a backlash from those who had booked flights with Virgin Galactic, with the company having received $80 million in fares and deposits.[27] Tom Bower, author of Branson: The Man behind the Mask, told the Sunday Times: "They spent 10 years trying to perfect one engine and failed. They are now trying to use a different engine and get into space in six months. It's just not feasible."[28]

Potential collaboration with NASA[edit]

In February 2007, Virgin announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA to explore the potential for collaboration,[29][30] but, to date, this has produced only a very small contract in 2011 of up to $4.5 million for research flights.[31]


After a claimed investment by Virgin Group of US$100 million,[32] in 2010 the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, Aabar Investments group, acquired a 31.8% stake in Virgin Galactic for US$280 million, receiving exclusive regional rights to launch tourism and scientific research space flights from the United Arab Emirates capital.[32] In July 2011, Aabar invested a further US$100 million to develop a program to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit, raising their equity share to 37.8%.[33] Virgin announced in June 2014 that they were in talks with Google about the injection of capital to funding both development and operations.[34] The New Mexico government has invested approaching $200m (£121m) in the Spaceport America facility.

Aircraft and spacecraft[edit]


White Knight Two in the air
White Knight Two on the ground

The White Knight Two is a special airplane built as the mother ship and launch-platform for the spacecraft SpaceShipTwo and the unmanned launch vehicle LauncherOne. The mother ship is a large fixed-wing aircraft with two hulls linked together by a central wing. Two aircraft are planned - VMS Eve[35] and VMS Spirit of Steve Fossett[36][37][38]


Main article: SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShip Two[edit]

Main article: SpaceShipTwo

Sir Richard Branson unveiled the rocket plane on December 7, 2009 announcing that, after testing, the plane would carry fare-paying passengers ticketed for short duration journeys just above the atmosphere. Virgin Group would initially launch from a base in New Mexico before extending operations around the globe. Built from lightweight carbon composite materials and powered by a hybrid rocket motor, SS2 is based on the Ansari X PRIZE-winning SpaceShipOne concept - a rocket plane that is lifted initially by a 'buddy' aircraft before independent launch. S1 became the world's first private spaceship with a series of high-altitude flights in 2004.[39] The programme was delayed after three Scaled Composites employees were killed in an accident in Mojave on 26 July 2007, where the detonation of a tank of nitrous oxide destroyed a test stand.[40] Its successor is twice as large, measuring 18 m (60 ft) in length; whereas SpaceShipOne could carry a single pilot and two passengers, SS2 will have a crew of two and room for six passengers.

By August 2013, 640 customers had signed up for a flight,[41] initially at a ticket price of $200,000 per person, but raised to $250,000 in May 2013.[42] Tickets are available from more than 140 "space agents" worldwide.[43] Passengers who have already submitted their deposit include Stephen Hawking, Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie.[44][45]

Overview of the SS2 spacecraft flights[edit]

SpaceShipTwo's planned trajectory would achieve a suborbital journey with a short period of weightlessness. Carried to about 16 kilometers, or 52000 ft, by a 'buddy' aircraft, White Knight II, after separation the vehicle would continue to over 100 km (the Kármán line, a common definition of where "space" begins). The time from liftoff of the White Knight booster carrying SpaceShipTwo until the touchdown of the spacecraft after the suborbital flight would be about 2.5 hours. The suborbital flight itself would only be a small fraction of that time, with weightlessness lasting approximately 6 minutes.[46] Passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats during these 6 minutes and float around the cabin. In addition to the suborbital passenger business, Virgin Galactic will market SpaceShipTwo for suborbital space science missions and market White Knight Two for "small satellite" launch services. It had planned to initiate RFPs for the satellite business in early 2010, but flights had not materialized as of 2014. In February 2014, cracks in WhiteKnightTwo, where the spars connect with the fuselage, were discovered during an inspection conducted after Virgin Galactic took possession of the aircraft from builder Scaled Composites.[47]

SpaceShipTwo's projected performance[edit]

SpaceShipTwo is projected to fly to a height of 110 km, going beyond the defined boundary of space (100 km) and lengthening the experience of weightlessness [for its passengers. The spacecraft would reach a top speed of 4000 km/h (2485 mph). On 23 May 2014, Virgin Galactic announced that they had abandoned use of the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) nitrous oxide-rubber motor for SpaceShipTwo;[48] on 24 July 2014, SNC confirmed that they had also abandoned use of this motor for its Dream Chaser space shuttle.[49] Future testing will see SpaceShipTwo powered by a polyamide grain powered motor.

In honor of the science fiction series Star Trek, the first two ships are named after the fictional starships Enterprise and Voyager. To reenter the atmosphere, SpaceShipTwo folds its wings up and then returns them to their original position for an unpowered descent flight back onto the runway. The craft has a very limited cross-range capability, and until other planned spaceports are built worldwide, it has to land in the area where it started. Further spaceports are planned in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere, with the intention that the spaceline will have a worldwide availability and commodity in the future.


LauncherOne is an orbital launch vehicle that was publicly announced by Virgin Galactic in July 2012. It is being designed to launch "smallsat" payloads of 100 kilograms (220 lb) into Earth orbit, with launches projected to begin in 2016. Several commercial customers have already contracted for launches, including GeoOptics, Skybox Imaging, Spaceflight Services, and Planetary Resources. Both Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems are developing satellite buses "optimized to the design of LauncherOne."[50][51]

In October 2012, Virgin announced that LauncherOne could place 200 kg (440 lb) in Sun-synchronous orbit.[52] Virgin plans to market the 100 kg (220 lb) payload delivery to low-Earth orbit (LEO) for under US$10,000,000 per mission,[50] while the maximum payload for LEO missions is 230 kg (500 lb).[53]

Virgin Galactic has been working on the LauncherOne concept since at least late 2008,[54] and the technical specifications were first described in some detail in late 2009.[55] The LauncherOne configuration is proposed to be an expendable, two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket air-launched from a White Knight Two.[56] This would make it a similar configuration to that used by Orbital Sciences' Pegasus, or a smaller version of the StratoLaunch.


LauncherOne will be a two-stage air-launched vehicle using RP-1/LOX liquid rocket engines. The second stage will be powered by NewtonOne, a 16 kilonewtons (3,500 lbf) thrust engine. The first stage will be powered by a scaled-up design of the same basic technology as NewtonOne, called NewtonTwo, with 211 kilonewtons (47,500 lbf) of thrust. Both engines have been designed, and as of January 2014 first articles have been built. NewtonOne has been tested up to a full-duration burn of five minutes. NewtonTwo has made several short-duration firings as of early 2014.[53]

The Spaceship Company[edit]

The Spaceship Company (TSC) is an aerospace production company founded by Virgin Group and Scaled Composites to build commercial spaceships and launch aircraft for space travel. TSC’s launch customer was Virgin Galactic, which contracted to purchase five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnightTwos;[57] Scaled Composites were contacted to develop and build prototypes of WK2 and SS2, of which TSC started full-scale production in 2008.[58][59] By July 2014, TSC was only halfway through the completion of a second SpaceShipTwo, and had commenced construction of a second WhiteKnightTwo. In 2012, Virgin Galactic acquired the 30% stake still owned by Scaled Composites.[60]


Amongst other organizations actively exploring reusable crewed suborbital and orbital spaceplanes are Sierra Nevada Corporation and XCOR Aerospace. Sierra Nevada's current plans for the Dream Chaser aircraft has it designed to carry five passengers and be launched from the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft. Unlike the SpaceShipTwo, the Dream Chaser would land on any conventional runway that could handle commercial traffic, conferring very significant operational, cost and safety advantages over the Virgin Galactic aircraft. XCOR's Lynx suborbital vehicle would takeoff under its own power horizontally from a runway. Upon takeoff, it would pitch up and climb to over 100km. With the engines shut down, it would then glide back and land on the runway. The Lynx will be capable of flying four full flights per day.

See also[edit]


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  13. ^ | work=BBC News | title=Branson unveils space tourism jett | date=July 28, 2008 | accessdate=March 7, 2014
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  58. ^ [1][dead link]
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External links[edit]