October 4, 2010

Virgin Galactic Announces Launcher Setback

Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne satellite launching rocket has suffered a setback.

The future of LauncherOne, which had once attracted 110 million dollars in investment from Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investment, is now in doubt after its manager departed the program.

LauncherOne was to be air-lifted and launched from Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. The rocket would take satellites weighing up to 440 pounds into low-Earth orbit for 1 to 2 million dollars.

Aabar Investment offered Virgin Galactic $110 million in July 2009 for LauncherOne development, if further studies proved the business case.

Later that year, the space orbital group took on Adam Baker as its general manager for small satellite launches and to conduct studies.

Dr Baker had previously worked for British spacecraft manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited.

The British company was looking for cheaper and more timely access to space for its clients and had talked with Virgin Galactic about working on the LauncherOne project in 2008 and 2009. But it had backed out after attempts to raise feasibility funding from the British National Space Centre (now the UK Space Agency) failed to succeed.

Soon after Dr Baker started working at Galactic, the company's president Will Whitehorn told a conference in October 2009 that LauncherOne could begin operating within a year after the sub-orbital tourism business was up and running.

However, Dr Baker left the company last month and there is no explanation from Virgin Galactic as to why the project is not set to follow Whitehorn's timetable.

"It's potentially an exciting area. Galactic as a whole may at some point in the future continue to work beyond looking at future projects," Virgin Galactic's CEO George Whitesides told BBC News. "It's an area we continue to think about."

He rejected views that technology export laws from the US government had contributed to the project's lack of progress.

Sir Richard Branson told a business conference in Kuala Lumpur last week that Virgin Galactic was on track to offer its short trips above the Earth for paying passengers within 18 months. Fares for the short flight start at $200,000. The company already has more than 300 hopeful passengers lined up for the flights.


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