There was some coverage earlier this week of reports that Virgin Galactic and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) were teaming up to develop a small satellite launcher using a new rocket launched from WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft being developed to launch SpaceShipTwo. Virgin has been interested in some time in developing a small satellite launcher using elements of the same system developed for SS2/WK2, calling the concept “LauncherOne”, as Flight International reported a couple months ago. Working with SSTL, arguably the world’s leading smallsat developer, makes sense, since launch costs and availability have been key obstacles to wider acceptance of smallsats.
There is an interesting angle to this that has, by and large, not been picked up. Last year SSTL was acquired by EADS Astrium, one of Europe’s largest aerospace companies; the deal closed just last month. Among Astrium’s many other projects is a suborbital spaceplane of its own that would compete directly with Virgin Galactic. Is SSTL’s cooperation with Virgin a sign that Astrium indeed allows SSTL to continue to operate as an independent company “with its individual brand and unique approach to space”, as the January press release about the deal’s closing stated? Or is it a sign that Astrium’s spaceplane project, which has not shown much overt progress since its unveiling in June 2007, is on hold or in greater jeopardy?