Spaceflight Insider

Virgin Galactic continues to test LauncherOne engine

Visualization of LauncherOne in flight

Visualization of LauncherOne in flight. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Last week, Virgin Galactic continued to test the first stage engine of its air-launched LauncherOne. The NewtonThree (N3) engine recently completed a long-duration test at full thrust.

The N3 produces about 73,500 pounds (327 kilonewtons) of thrust. It is powered by liquid kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOX). Previous firings include a full thrust, 90-second firing in the fourth quarter of 2015 and multiple full thrust firings throughout 2016.

N3 hot-fire engine test – 2017-02-13

NewtonThree (N3) hot-fire engine test on Feb. 13, 2017. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic on Twitter

LauncherOne’s second stage is powered by an N4 engine. It produces 5,000 pounds (22 kilonewtons) of thrust and is also powered using RP-1 and LOX. For most launches, the second stage will be ignited multiple times with a coast phase in between the burns. Combined, the second stage is capable of firing for almost six minutes.

To try and minimize space debris in orbit, both LauncherOne stages will be de-orbited and will burn up in the atmosphere.

LauncherOne is an air-launch system that was originally designed to be flown to its launch altitude by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. However, Virgin Galactic has now employed a Boeing 747-400 to be used.

Dubbed Cosmic Girl, the aircraft will take LauncherOne to an altitude of 35,000 feet (11,000 meters) where it will be released. Then the two-stage launcher will take the payload the rest of the way using its rocket engines.

Visualization of Virgin Galactic 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' with LauncherOne under its wing

Visualization of Virgin Galactic 747-400 “Cosmic Girl” with LauncherOne under its wing. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

The swap to Cosmic Girl had two advantages: first, it freed up WhiteKnightTwo to be dedicated to the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight vehicle program; second, it doubled the size of the payload LauncherOne could carry.

N3 engine test in October 2015

NewtonThree hot-fire engine test in October 2015. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

With the growing popularity of CubeSats and other smaller satellites among colleges, small companies, and even some government agencies, a large launch vehicle is not necessarily required anymore.

LauncherOne is designed to take those smaller payloads into orbit. Currently, it can take up to 441 pounds (200 kilograms) of payload to a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) to other low-Earth orbits.

Virgin Galactic currently has multiple contracts with different customers that will launch aboard LauncherOne including NASA, Sky and Space Global, and OneWeb Ltd.

Currently, most of those smaller payloads launch alongside bigger primary payloads on larger rockets to keep launch costs down. However, that limits their destinations in orbit as they have to take the flight path that the primary payload is taking.

With a low-cost launcher like LauncherOne, the customer can get its payload to its preferred orbit and at a reasonable cost. Virgin Galactic expects to take payloads to SSO for under $10 million.

As an added benefit, the frequency of launches using this system is expected to be much higher than a traditional launcher due to the lack of maintenance and preparation to a launch pad between flights.

Additionally, weather concerns are much less since the aircraft carrying the launch vehicle can go above, or around, weather systems that would keep traditional launch vehicles grounded.

LauncherOne is expected to start carrying payloads into orbit as early as 2018.

Video Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

 

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Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.

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