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UK gov to fund Virgin mothership micro-sat launcher

Pocket rocket to launch from WhiteKnightTwo jet

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The British government is reportedly prepared to fund development of a rocket able to put small satellites into orbit, launched from the WhiteKnightTwo "mothership" piggyback jet which will carry Richard Branson's planned space-tourism rocketplanes to startup altitude.

Flight International reports today that "a senior official" at the British National Space Centre has said that the proposed "LauncherOne" project will receive UK government backing "through to the end". The BNSC is an alliance of UK government bodies which coordinates national civil space efforts: the nearest thing Blighty has to a space agency.

According to Flight, the LauncherOne plan would see the new WhiteKnightTwo piggyback jet carrying a new rocket tipped with a "micro satellite" payload weighing up to 200kg. Having been lifted up into the stratosphere by the mothership, the rocket would then be able to put the small sat into low orbit.

WhiteKnightTwo is currently in flight testing: the accompanying SpaceShipTwo suborbital joyride rocketplanes are in development, intended to carry wealthy thrillseekers on a brief ballistic trip into space. The combo mothership/rocketplane system is based on the famous SpaceShipOne+WhiteKnightOne which won the Ansari X-Prize for the first private spaceflight in 2004.

Flight reports that the LauncherOne notion is a collaboration between beardy biz kingpin Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space-joyride operation and well-known British small sat company Surrey Satellite Technology, makers of the initial Galileo satnav test bird among other things. Surrey Satellite apparently has trouble finding launch spaces for its products, and would find LauncherOne very handy.

"Two thirds of our missions are spacecraft below 200kg and launch availability is a real challenge for us," company exec Philip Davies told the magazine.

A similar concept already exists in the form of the Pegasus rocket used by American firm Orbital Sciences to launch satellites from aboard a modified TriStar airliner. The Pegasus has already been used successfully more than twenty times over the last decade; it can carry one satellite of up to 450kg, or two smaller ones in the proposed LauncherOne league. ®

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