We've been fairly sure that Virgin Galactic had always intended to get into the commercial satellite business with its fancy midair launch system, especially now that Stratolaunch is planning to do the same thing, just bigger. In a press release today, Virgin announced LauncherOne, its new low-cost LEO launch system.
Essentially, LauncherOne works in exactly the same way as SpaceShipTwo: a carrier aircraft hoists the launch vehicle up to 50,000 feet and drops it, at which point the rocket engines fire up and the launch vehicle heads to orbit. Doing it this way saves some money (since you get the first 50,000 feet for free), but the reason it's appealing is more about versatility: you don't need a bunch of ground infrastructure, and you can launch from more or less wherever, whenever, avoiding weather while still hitting your target orbit.
LauncherOne maxes out with a satellite payload of about 500 pounds, and getting one of those to low Earth orbit will set you back less than $10 million, which is piddlysauce to serious satellite customers. Such customers already include Planetary Resources, that mildly crazy but also apparently very serious asteroid mining company that announced its existence earlier this year.
Below we have a video featuring the one and only Sir Richard Branson explaining why LauncherOne is the best thing since sliced spacebread, as well as a gallery full of pretty concept images.
Via Virgin Galactic