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Virgin Galactic reveals where it'll build its satellite-launching rockets


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Richard Branson's not just into space tourism -- there's also LauncherOne, which delivers satellites into orbit after being dropped from a "mothership" aircraft. Virgin Galactic says that the rocket will be built a mere 30 minutes from Los Angeles at a 150,000 square foot ex-Boeing facility near Long Beach Airport (below). The space outfit will design and mass produce the LauncherOne rocket there and use the airport as a mission base. Like the SpaceShip Two manned craft, the LauncherOne rocket and payload doesn't need a launchpad -- it's released from an altitude of 50,000 feet by the WhiteKnight Two aircraft. That enables it to heft satellites up to 500 pounds into low-earth orbit for as little as $10 million, a subtantitally cheaper price than (already inexpensive) competitors like SpaceX.

At least, that's the theory. So far, LauncherOne hasn't put anything into space yet, though it does have a major launch order with a company called OneWeb. Co-owned in part by Virgin and Qualcomm, OneWeb intends to launch 648 "microsatellites" to supply internet to underserved areas. Unfortunately, the Virgin Galactic program suffered a major setback with the crash of SpaceShip Two during a test flight, which killed one of the pilots. That's unlikely to affect the LauncherOne program much, however, since it's unmanned and substantially less risky. Branson is confident that once it's up to speed, the system could deliver several payloads into space every day.

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