Fu­ture tech Vir­gin or­bit

Cos­mic Girl and LauncherOne will com­bine to be­come a big player in com­mer­cial space­flight

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Cos­mic Girl and LauncherOne will com­bine to be­come a big player in com­mer­cial space­flight

In the ex­pand­ing race for com­mer­cial space flight it ap­pears that Elon Musk’s SpaceX is lead­ing with its con­tracts with NASA to de­liver cargo to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, as well as de­liv­er­ing other or­gan­i­sa­tions’ satel­lites to low-Earth or­bit. One of the other run­ners in­cludes Bri­tish bil­lion­aire Sir Richard Bran­son, owner of both Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic, which is fo­cused on space­flight and space tourism, and Vir­gin Or­bit, which fo­cuses on de­liv­er­ing satel­lites into or­bit, as part of the Vir­gin Group.

As of 26 Oc­to­ber 2018, Bran­son has flaunted the craft that will make Vir­gin Or­bit a ma­jor run­ner in satel­lite de­liv­ery, in Bran­son’s words, “con­nect­ing the world”. There has been much op­ti­mism over the re­cent un­veil­ing of the dy­namic duo that is the LauncherOne rocket and its car­rier plane, named Cos­mic Girl, which is a mod­i­fied for­mer-Boe­ing 747-400 air­craft. LauncherOne is an idea that first came into ex­is­tence in 2007. How­ever, the orig­i­nal con­cept was shelved in 2015 when Vir­gin Or­bit de­cided to go for a larger rocket with a big­ger pay­load ca­pa­bil­ity, up­grad­ing the orig­i­nal 200 kilo­grams (440 pounds) to low-Earth or­bit to 300 kilo­grams (660 pounds) to a Sun-syn­chro­nous or­bit.

Bran­son claims that Cos­mic Girl and LauncherOne will de­ploy satel­lites into or­bit in early 2019. Cos­mic

Girl will make the ini­tial 9,100-me­tre (30,000-foot) climb into the at­mos­phere be­fore LauncherOne fires its thrusters to drop off satel­lites, trav­el­ling at speeds of 28,000 kilo­me­tres (17,500 miles) per hour. In a re­cent blog post Bran­son ex­plained that “the team were car­ry­ing out the in­te­gra­tion check of the rocket with Cos­mic Girl to ver­ify me­chan­i­cal, elec­tri­cal, soft­ware and dy­nam­ics all work to­gether for the first time”.

LauncherOne will be able to carry pay­loads “that could be as small as a loaf of bread and as large as a house­hold fridge”. It uses two Vir­gin-de­signed en­gine stages: New­tonThree pro­duces 330 kilo­new­tons (74,000 pound-force) of thrust while New­tonFour will pro­vide a smaller 22 kilo­new­tons (4,900 pound-force). Early into the burn of the sec­ond stage the pay­load at the tip will jet­ti­son its clamshell and re­lease the satel­lite.

The launch vehicle can fly for thou­sands of miles in any di­rec­tion with as lit­tle as 24 hours no­tice, whereas at the mo­ment satel­lite launches from the ground will usu­ally have to wait be­tween 18 and 24 months. This in­no­va­tive think­ing will al­low for more fre­quent and af­ford­able launches, and it will be­come ap­par­ent in the fol­low­ing months just how much of a player Vir­gin will be in the game of com­mer­cial space.

Pay­load mod­uleOnce the sec­ond stage thrusters are fired the clamshell halves sep­a­rate to re­lease the satel­lite at the tip of the rocket. It is ca­pa­ble of plac­ing300 kilo­grams (660 pounds) into Sunsy­chronous or­bit or 500 kilo­grams (1,100 pounds) into low-Earth or­bit. Sec­ond stageThe fi­nal, less pow­er­ful thruster will fire the sec­ond stage to or­bit, with New­tonFour de­liv­er­ing 22 kilo­new­tons (4,900 pound-force) of thrust.

First stageOnce reach­ing a 9,100-me­tre (30,000-foot) al­ti­tude the New­tonThree rocket will fire its pump-fed LOX/RP-1 liq­uid rocket en­gine. The New­tonThree en­gine pro­duces 330 kilo­new­tons (74,000 pound-force) of thrust.

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