Virgin Galactic, the commercial spaceline developer with operations in eastern Kern County, has unveiled plans to build a new air-launched rocket designed to deliver small satellites into orbit.

Commercial flights of a new orbital launch vehicle dubbed LauncherOne are expected to begin by 2016, Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson said Wednesday at the Farnborough International Airshow in England.

Virgin Galactic aims to offer frequent and dedicated launches at the world's lowest prices, Branson said through a news release. Virgin also announced that four private companies have already put down deposits as future LauncherOne customers, expressing their intent to purchase several dozen launches, which would exceed the level of early commitment of any previous new launch vehicle.

At the same event, Branson said the number of deposits the company has received from future astronauts for suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo has grown to 529, a number greater than the total count of people who have been to space throughout human history. This news comes following a flurry of recent test activity and confirmation that all major components of SpaceShipTwo's rocket system have been qualified for powered flight, on track to begin at Mojave Air and Space Port before the year's end.

"Virgin Galactic's goal is to revolutionize the way we get to space," Branson said. "I'm immensely proud of what we have already achieved as we draw near to regular suborbital flights on SpaceShipTwo.

"Now, LauncherOne is bringing the price of satellite launch into the realm of affordability for innovators everywhere, from start-ups and schools to established companies and national space agencies," he said. "It will be a critical new tool for the global research community, enabling us all to learn about our home planet more quickly and affordably."

LauncherOne will be a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 500 pounds to orbit for less than $10 million. Historically, satellite launches have cost between $50 million and $400 million, according to NASA. But that is changing as companies are developing platforms for launching tiny nano-satellites (1 to 10 kilograms) and micro-satellites (10 to 100 kilograms) into Low Earth Orbit for thousands rather than millions of dollars.

Virgin's rocket will be launched from WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft also designed to carry SpaceShipTwo aloft to begin her suborbital missions. Thanks to the extreme flexibility of air launch, Virgin Galactic's customers will enjoy reduced infrastructure costs in addition to the wide range of possible launch locations tailored to individual mission requirements and weather conditions. Branson and other senior executives announced that work has already begun on the vehicle, according to Wednesday's release.

Several LauncherOne customers were recognized at the event, representing a broad range of commercial satellite applications. Those named were Skybox Imaging, a Silicon Valley-based firm that recently announced it has raised $91 million for a high resolution imaging constellation; GeoOptics Inc., a U.S.-based company developing a constellation of non-imaging remote sensing satellites; Spaceflight, Inc., the aggregator and integrator of small satellites; and Planetary Resources, Inc., the newly-announced, billionaire-backed asteroid mining venture.

Speaking at the event, Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll said, "Skybox's objective is to provide world-class, affordable access to space imagery and information, and in order to do so, we need world-class, affordable access to space. Virgin Galactic is unique in having the right mix of ingredients to support our vision, as well as that of the growing small satellite community. We plan to make full use of LauncherOne."

Also today, two world leaders in small satellite manufacturing, Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, announced that they would create optimized satellite designs to match LauncherOne's performance specifications. These optimized designs will allow customers to maximize the capability and minimize the time to market for their satellites.

"Small satellite launch is an area ripe for disruption," said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. "Miniaturized satellite components and constrained budgets are driving commercial clients, academic users and government agencies all to clamor for an affordable, dedicated launch vehicle."