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Space Blog

Chartered flights for satellites?

Virgin Galactic and SSTL’s American operation, 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. 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.
Artist's impression of Skylon in flight. Courtesy of Reaction Engines.
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.
LauncherOne and WhiteKnightTwo
The development of a new launch vehicle inevitably requires considerable capital investment, but in time the reusability of space planes, together with frequent launches, could make them a cost-effective alternative to conventional rockets, thus also reducing the cost of launching a payload such as a small satellite. Satellites are instrumental to our daily lives, from building scientific understanding to providing services we take for granted like TV and SatNav, and they will continue to become more valuable in the future. These launches could remove a significant barrier to innovation, offering more opportunities to companies and universities for which current launch opportunities are both expensive and scarce. Virgin and Reaction Engines are just a few examples of the high-tech manufacturing companies bringing the UK to the forefront of commercial space flight. It’s exciting to think that in just a few years, the UK could have an end-to-end capability in the design, manufacture and launch of satellites. Not only would this create more jobs but it also has lucrative export potential. Who said the sky’s the limit?





30 July 20120 Comments1 Comment

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