Virgin Galactic Deal Targets Small Satellite Launches
Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo spreads its wings and chalks up mileage flying to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to appear at Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) AirVenture convention. The flying launch platform can support suborbital space tourism as well as toss small satellites into Earth orbit.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic unveiled a new partnership Tuesday that pushes the throttle forward on its plans for commercial suborbital space travel and a new small satellite launch capacity.

The deal involves Abu Dhabi?s Aabar Investments and Virgin Galactic, the commercial spaceliner group bankrolled by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson to fly ?pay-per-view? customers to the edge of space.

Specifics of the partnership, which includes Aabar investing $280 million in Virgin Galactic in return for an equity stake, were outlined today at the Experimental Aircraft Association?s (EAA) AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wisc., which is now under way.

To date, Virgin Galactic has been wholly owned and funded by Branson?s Virgin Group. The new flush of Aabar money is also targeted to fund a small satellite launch capability making use of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, now undergoing extensive trial runs.

The WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mothership - christened ?Eve? after Branson?s mother - flew into the AirVenture air show yesterday for its debut public demonstration flight in Oshkosh.

As the largest all-composite aircraft ever built, the WK2 was designed and built by Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, a firm now owned by Northrop Grumman and founded by aerospace master craftsman, Burt Rutan.

The WK2 is designed to haul the six-passenger/two-pilot SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude, and then release the spacecraft so it can begin its suborbital flight. SpaceShipTwo is likely to be unveiled publicly in December and then begin its own set of in-flight evaluations.

Branson is slated today to be onboard VMS Eve as a member of the crew for a demonstration flight at the air show. To date, the WK2 had flown some 15 times, expanding its performance capabilities prior to its cross-country hop to the Oshkosh convention.

Smallsat launches

?It?s a busy day,? said Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn. ?This is a big deal?and for us it?s an important strategic move,? he told in a pre-signing exclusive interview.

Aabar is a very savvy investor, Whitehorn said. ?What was particularly exciting, when we began discussions with Aabar, is that they were prepared to commit to doing something that we?re very, very keen to develop quickly?which is a satellite launch vehicle.?

Whitehorn said the deal is not going to change Virgin Galactic?s space program from the point of view of space tourism or space science using SpaceShipTwo.

?What it is going to do is change the speed which we can now start the satellite development work,? Whitehorn added.

Whitehorn said a business plan is being evolved by working very closely with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, a leading small satellite company based in Guildford, United Kingdom. That group has already delivered operational space missions for a range of applications including Earth observation, science and communications.

?The result of this deal with Aabar, we?ll have satellite launch capability within three years,? Whitehorn said.

Deal details

The deal signed today between Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group, and Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, Chief Executive Officer of Aabar, centers on a number of aspects:

  • Aabar will invest approximately $280 million and take around a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic?s holding company.
  • Aabar has committed some $100 million extra to fund a small satellite launch capability, subject to the development of a full business plan.
  • Aabar will gain exclusive regional rights, subject to regulatory clearances, to host Virgin Galactic tourism and scientific research space flights. Aabar has plans to build a science center and spaceport facilities in Abu Dhabi.

According to a Virgin Galactic issued press statement, the new infusion of cash means the spaceliner company is fully funded through to its commencement of commercial suborbital operations.

Branson?s Virgin Group has invested over $100 million in Virgin Galactic since its formation in late 2004.

Aabar Investments PJSC is an investment company headquartered in Abu Dhabi and is on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange. It directly invests in various sectors including energy, infrastructure, real estate, automotive and financial services companies. Its largest shareholder is the International Petroleum Investment Company, which in turn is wholly owned by the Government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

  • New Video - SpaceShipTwo, Start Your Rocket Engines
  • Video - Space Tourism: Virgin Galactic Way - Part 1, Part 2
  • Images - SpaceShipTwo Mothership Unveiled

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for since 1999.