Another space announcement from Google and Virgin Galactic last week took many folks by surprise. Google is supposed to be in talks with Virgin Galactic, and supposedly wants to buy a small stake in the sub-orbital flight company. One telltale sign of the seriousness of the talks is the companies have signed up and registered the internet domain name Virgle, at least according to Sky News.
This might make sense, if Google is looking to support cheaper options for getting low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites into orbit. And Virgin Galactic is touting LauncherOne as a way to get payloads into LEO quickly and inexpensively. The only hitch to this right now is that Virgin Galactic hasn’t really started their initial business of flying passengers into space. But maybe they’ll get there.
If LauncherOne works, then Google could inexpensively launch a few SkyBox satellites into LEO (they each weigh about 120 kg., or a little less than 265 lbs.). LauncherOne is stated to have a payload capacity of 225 kg. (500 lbs.) for a “low inclination orbit“–an orbital path that crosses the equator at closer to a 0 degree angle rather than 45 or 90. Or, if someone wants to put a satellite into LEO sun-synchronous (go here to see what that means), the payload capacity gets cut nearly in half: 100 kg. (225 lbs.). The weight of the payload is cut because more fuel is required to get the satellite into an orbit which is more inclined. So, if SkyBox and Google wish to start using Virgin Galactic to launch more SkySat satellites, they’ll need time to reduce the satellite weight a bit.
But since SkyBox signed an agreement with Orbital Sciences earlier this year to launch six more satellites in 2015, SkyBox might be able to get that done. Then, the other 23 or so satellites SkyBox wants to get into orbit can be accomplished with Virgin Galactic perhaps more cheaply. And, if something goes wrong with one of their satellites, they can quickly schedule a Virgin Galactic LauncherOne “launch,” and get a new, healthy replacement satellite into LEO quickly.
Just how well the US Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program will compete, pricewise, with this (especially considering Virgin Galactic passengers are paying a mere $200,000–so the satellite launch will be cheaper, too, perhaps)? And will that program be at least as responsive as Virgin Galactic might be? Doubtful–but it’s an exciting time for space operators and fans.