Virgin Galactic to up launch rate with two more WhiteKnightTwo motherships
It appears Virgin Galactic is looking to ramp up its commercial space services, placing orders for two more WhiteKnightTwo motherships from Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Services to support the air launch of Virgin's SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.
Though Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spaceplane that can briefly carry paying passengers into space on suborbital flights may garner the lion's share of the attention, it's the WhiteKnightTwo air launch carrier aircraft that is the real linchpin of the system.
With twin fuselages and albatross-like soaring wings spanning 141 ft (43 m), WhiteKnightTwo's job is to carry SpaceShipTwo aloft slung between its two hulls. It then flies to an altitude of around 50,000 ft (15,000 m) and the spaceplane is released to fly into space under the thrust of its hybrid rocket engine.
That may seem like the point where WhiteKnightTwo's role ends, but the mothership is more than just a flying tender. Originally developed by Scaled Composites, it was designed as a multi-purpose aircraft that can not only launch passenger spacecraft, but also other launch payloads. In addition, it can be used as a zero-gravity aircraft for training or microgravity experiments, as well as for general high-altitude tests. It's even been considered for use as a firefighting water bomber.
Taking into account its core space tourist service that's scheduled to begin in 2023, it's a small wonder Virgin Galactic is looking to expand its fleet.
According to the company, the two new aircraft will be developed and manufactured by Aurora, with the final assembly to take place at the Virgin Galactic facility in Mojave, California. The first is expected to be completed and in service by 2025 when the company's Delta-class spacecraft begins flying commercially, and each one is slated to conduct up to 200 spaceplane launches per year.
"Our next-generation motherships are integral to scaling our operations," said Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer Michael Colglazier. "They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain and will allow us to fly substantially more missions each year. Supported by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us as we build our fleet to support 400 flights per year at Spaceport America."
Source: Virgin Galactic