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Chartered Flights for Satellites?

Virgin Galactic and SST-US are collaborating to radically lower the cost of building and launching small satellites. Alternative launches aren’t new but are currently an area of such frenetic activity that we thought we’d take a step back and look at ‘space planes’ and their potential to lower launch costs.

LauncherOne Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

Whereas conventional ‘rockets’ used to launch satellites require purpose built launch pads, space planes are able to take off from normal runways and land back on them too, making them reusable and broadening launch opportunities. Virgin Galactic is just one example of many budding space plane projects: ESA has proposed the Vinci space plane and the sleek black Skylon, designed by UK-based Reaction Engines, is also generating much excitement.

Reaction Engines’ Skylon, is a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) spacecraft that changes its means of propulsion from “air breathing mode” to rocket mode as the space plane moves from Earth’s atmosphere to orbit. The oxygen from the atmosphere would be replaced by liquid oxygen from internal tanks to combust the liquid hydrogen fuel when the propulsion mode changes.

Virgin Galactic’s approach, employs two craft to reach orbit. The first, WhiteKnightTwo, would take off from the ground like a normal jet aircraft with a smaller spaceship cradled underneath. When it reaches around 50,000 feet, it would release the spaceship, LauncherOne, which will use a liquid propellant to climb to its highest point and deliver the payload to Low Earth Orbit. LauncherOne borrows both concept and infrastructure from Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, reducing the investment needed to get it off the ground.

 

28 August 20120 Comments1 Comment

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