Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company within the Virgin Group. It is developing commercial spacecraft and aims 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 plans to provide orbital human spaceflights as well. The company also hopes to develop an orbital launch vehicle (LauncherOne). SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spacecraft, is air launched from beneath a carrier airplane known as White Knight Two.
While Virgin has been pursuing the development of a smallsat launch vehicle since 2012, the company began in 2015 to make the smallsat launch business a larger part of Virgin’s core business plan, as the Virgin human spaceflight program has experienced multiple delays.
Potential collaboration with NASA
In February 2007, Virgin announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA to explore the potential for collaboration, but, to date, this has produced only a relatively small contract in 2011 of up to $4.5 million for research flights.
OneWeb satellite Internet access provider
Virgin Group in January 2015, announced an investment into the OneWeb satellite constellation providing world Internet access service of WorldVu. Virgin Galactic will take a share of the launch contracts to launch the satellites into their 1200 km orbits. The prospective launches would use the under-design LauncherOne system.
Amongst other organizations actively exploring reusable crewed suborbital and orbital spaceplanes are Sierra Nevada Corporation, 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 100 km. 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.
On 16 September 2014, SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion and Boeing received $4.2 billion as part of NASA’s CCtCap program to develop their Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, respectively. Dragon and Starliner both utilize capsule designs launched on top of a rocket, unlike Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane design. Both will land by parachute initially, and SpaceX intends to later propulsively land its Dragon craft. Each craft is expected to first launch humans as early as 2017.
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