LONG BEACH, Calif. — Virgin Orbit aims to blaze a trail on the final frontier, but in order to do that, it has had to push into new frontiers on the factory floor.
Case in point: The Lasertec 4300 3D additive-subtractive hybrid machine that’s turning out rocket parts at Virgin Orbit’s 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility here in Long Beach.
Like a 3-D printer, the room-sized machine builds up a component from the ground up, using laser light to fuse metal powder into each layer. But along each step of the way, the part is fine-tuned by shaving off the excess bits.
“It is literally the first of its kind in operation with a commercial company,” Andrew Duggleby, a manufacturing manager at Virgin Orbit, said as he worked on the combustion chamber for one of Virgin Orbit’s Newton rocket engines.
Virtually every company in the space business — including Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources and Tethers Unlimited in the Seattle area — is making use of additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, to streamline the process of building rocket engines and spacecraft components.
3-D printing techniques make it possible to build rapid prototypes for parts, as well as the parts themselves, reflecting designs that would take much more time and effort to execute using traditional milling machines.
Scott Macklin, chief engineer for the company’s LauncherOne Evolution team, said traditional manufacturing techniques might produce one complete combustion chamber in a year’s time.
“We think that we can be generating a combustion chamber like this on the order of a month … an order of magnitude of reduction in time,” Macklin told GeekWire during a recent visit.
Time is of the essence for Virgin Orbit, which was spun off from Virgin Galactic in March. While Virgin Galactic and another sister venture, The Spaceship Company, are concentrating on developing the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for suborbital passenger flights, Virgin Orbit is focusing on the LauncherOne system, which will send small satellites into orbit on rockets launched from a modified Boeing 747 jet.
The jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, is undergoing flight tests in Long Beach as well at Virgin Galactic’s home base in Mojave, Calif. Eventually, a huge pylon will be added to the airframe for carrying the rockets. Macklin said the system will run through a series of tests, starting with an empty rocket, then a rocket that carries water ballast to simulate the weight of a load of fuel, and then a fueled-up rocket.
The first test launch is scheduled for the first half of 2018, and Macklin acknowledged that there’s lots to do between now and then.
“As much as you can test everything on the ground, there are some things that you just won’t know until you get into flight,” he said.
Rocket engine development is proceeding in parallel. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket consists of two stages: The first stage powered by a NewtonThree engine capable of 73,500 pounds of thrust, and the second stage has a NewtonFour engine with 5,000 pounds of thrust. Both engines use RP-1 kerosene for fuel.
Many of LauncherOne’s components, including its cryogenic oxidizer tanks, are made of carbon composite material — which is another way in which Virgin Orbit is blazing a high-tech trail for orbital-class launch vehicles.
This summer, Virgin Orbit built its first pathfinder LauncherOne rocket for testing. A huge structure nicknamed the Pylon-a-Tron stands ready on the factory floor to gauge how the system will behave when the rocket is dropped from its mothership.
Virgin Orbit says LauncherOne can put payloads weighing up to 660 pounds in orbit at a cost of $12 million to $15 million. There’s already a long list of signed-up customers, ranging from NASA to the OneWeb, Cloud Constellation, Sitael and Sky and Space Global satellite ventures.
The level of interest illustrates how rapidly the launch industry is changing, due to the push for lower-cost access to space as well as the rising capabilities of small satellites for communications and orbital imaging.
Virgin Orbit’s list of potential competitors is at least as long as its list of customers: Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch, Vector Space Systems and a host of other companies are all angling for the small-satellite market.
But Macklin, who came to Virgin Orbit from SpaceX, said he doesn’t mind the competition.
“I viewed SpaceX as this game changer. They lit the match and showed that this can be done,” he said. “But as amazing as SpaceX is, it’s still just one company, and as long as it’s just one company, it could be written off as a fluke. It takes more to turn that match, that spark, into a fire.”