Richard Branson has his eye on the skies--again.
The entrepreneur's newest venture, Virgin Orbit, launched in March with the goal of launching mini-satellites into space.
Now, the Long Beach, Calif.-based venture is moving closer to launching these satellite companies beyond Earth's atmosphere. According to Quartz, the company already has partnerships with several startups and is looking to make its first flights next year.
One of Orbit's clients, Planet Labs, currently has about 150 satellites--the largest fleet of image-taking satellites in history, Planet says--floating above earth. The San Francisco-based company previously told Inc. that when the satellites are all online later this year, they'll be capable of collectively photographing the entire surface of the earth in a 24-hour period.
Another client, Virginia-based OneWeb, is looking to launch hundreds of internet-beaming satellites sometime next year.
Virgin Orbit is specifically targeting as customers the mini-satellite companies that have begun springing up in recent years. While traditional satellites can be about the size of a bus, new technological advances have allowed for smaller, less expensive devices that can sometimes be the size of a shoebox.
Instead of using a large rocket capable of launching a traditional satellite, Orbit will equip a 747 jet with a rocket attached underneath its wing. The jet will fly to high altitudes, then fire off the rocket with the package of satellites enclosed.
Rocket companies like SpaceX are currently the best best for mini-satellite startups to get into space. But reserving room aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9, which has averaged about three annual launches in recent years, often requires around 18 months of lead time.
Virgin Orbit's goal is to begin by launching 10 times per year, then ramp that number up to 20. Companies might wait as little as six months to launch, allowing them to start generating revenues from their satellites sooner. A flight on one of Orbit's rockets would cost about $12 to 15 million, though, which would be more per pound than on a SpaceX flight. A SpaceX flight costs about $57 million, though it's capable of carrying about 15 times as much cargo by weight, according to the Long Beach Press Telegram.
According to Quartz, analysts estimate that the market for mini-satellite launches will be worth $1 billion in the near future.
Other firms, including Rocket Labs and Vector Space, are vying for the same kind of customers as Orbit. Each of those companies launched test flights last month, so Branson's project will have some catching up to do. It currently has four rocket prototypes, and it expects to begin test flights in early 2018.
"What is happening with the small satellite market is pure energy," Dan Hart, Orbit's CEO, told Quartz. "The next three years are big." Hart, who worked for Boeing for 34 years before joining Orbit, compared the competition to the early days of commercial space launches, when his former company and Lockheed Martin battled for lucrative contracts.
Orbit is separate from Virgin Galactic, Branson's other space company. That venture's goal is to bring customers into space for $250,000 apiece. The 700-person waiting list for a round-trip ticket includes celebrities like Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Katy Perry.