Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, has detailed his plans for his space company, which is in line with supporting U.S. military endeavors, at one of the world’s largest defense conferences.
Speaking at the annual Air Force Association’s Air Space & Cyber symposium during a fireside chat with AFA’s chairman Whiten Peters, Branson referred to the future of Virgin Group, which is comprised of more than 60 companies including space ventures Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and VOX Space.
Branson told that he plans to continue working alongside the United States Air Force. Particularly, Branson is referring to his satellite deployment and production arm, Virgin Orbit, which is preparing to launch satellites using a modified 747 aircraft flying at high altitudes.
According to Branson, the 747 will serve as a mobile launching pad for satellite deployments. A small launch vehicle called LauncherOne is tucked under the wing of the aircraft and when dropped from a high altitude, it ignites its engine and flies a satellite to orbit.
The plans come as the Pentagon is looking for a launch service that will be able to serve the U.S. military, specifically the Air Force, whereas their space assets can be less vulnerable to attacks by advanced adversaries such as China and Russia.
In fact, Virgin Orbit in November 2017 received a contract from the Pentagon’s technology outreach organization, the Defense Innovation Unit, to launch an Air Force experimental satellite. Branson’s latest conversation at the Air Force symposium simply moves to build on that initial contract.
Branson in recent months has even met with senior officials at the Pentagon and before taking the stage at AFA, he briefly met with Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of the U.S. Space Command.
Other than detailing the architecture Virgin Orbit plans to use in service for the U.S. Air Force, he also detailed that it would be a smart idea to use it.
“Our thinking behind Virgin Orbit was that at present if you want to put a satellite in space and you’re in America, there are two places you can launch from,” Branson said. “Generally speaking, it takes about six months to eight months to get a slot, and obviously having only two places it’s quite vulnerable to attack as well.”
Raymond and other military space leaders have also championed the idea of “responsive launch” — having access to small launch vehicles that can deploy satellites on short notice. Officials describe it as a protocol where the military can initiate in the instance where an attack on any of the country’s space assets has been made and needs a quick replacement.
“Hopefully that will be a deterrent to an enemy state to not knock out satellites if America has a capability to replace them within 24 hours,” said Branson.
“As long as that’s done I think the chances of us getting satellites knocked out by an enemy power is very unlikely because we’ll able to get our stuff up faster than they can get theirs up,” he added.
The modified Boeing 747 launch platform, called Cosmic Girl, was designed so it can take off on four or five hours’ notice with a rocket attached under the wing.
The company has been conducting flight tests and will be launching satellites for the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force in the next few months, he noted.
The billionaire entrepreneur also mentioned that Virgin Orbit’s latest “drop test” of the LauncherOne rocket was last July 10 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Furthermore, an orbital launch will be attempted in the coming months.
The company has had meetings with U.S., U.K, Canadian and European air forces to discuss options, he said. “We will have planes parked around the world with a number of rockets and a number of satellites. If that’s done, the chances of getting our satellites knocked out by an enemy are very unlikely .. we’ll get ours back up.”
Branson said the military can benefit from working alongside the private sector in order to cut costs.
“Private industry generally can do things more cost-effectively than the government,” he said. “But there are some things the private sector needs to work with the government on.”
In the case of Virgin Orbit, having planes stationed around the world to launch satellites “would not make sense for us as a private company” but is a capability that would help the Air Force.
There’s a good working balance between the two,” he said. Branson noted that NASA “farms out a lot of its work to private enterprise because they know the private enterprise is likely to do it more cost-effectively.”