The increased payload capacity would also allow Virgin to fly government satellites, as well, Virgin chief executive George Whitesides said in a phone interview from Paris, where the company made the announcement.
While known mostly for its ambitions to fly tourists into space, Virgin’s move to increase its rocket payload shows how it is also attacking the lucrative satellite launch business. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company, also announced Monday that it was awarded two commercial launch contracts recently, bringing its total launch manifest to 60 launches.
Virgin said that it is also close to acquiring a commercial aircraft to help launch its rockets. Unlike rockets that are fired from a standing position from launch pads after a 3-2-1 countdown, Virgin’s rockets are escorted high into the sky by massive airplanes. The rockets, which are tethered to the plane’s belly, are dropped from the aircraft and then fire their engines, shooting into orbit.
That kind of system frees the company from the “often congested launch ranges and corresponding real-time launch constraints, such as weather,” it said.
Whitesides said that demand for launches “has become so significant that LauncherOne will have its own dedicated aircraft. Small satellites are big business.”
The company has yet to fly a satellite into space, but it says it has several customers lined up. Test flights of LauncherOne are scheduled to begin in 2017.
Whitesides said the company is getting closer to returning to flying SpaceShip Two, the vehicle that it hopes will one day fly tourists into space. Last year, the space ship crashed during a test flight in the Mojave desert, killing the co-pilot.
Whitesides said that the company is “making great progress on the next spaceship,” and that it is giving the “engineers time to build.”
“We’re obviously working hard to make sure the new vehicle has the improvements we need to respond to the accident.”