Virgin Orbit LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit LauncherOne Service SystemDevelopment Status Launches References
LauncherOne System of Virgin Orbit, with headquarters in Long Beach, California, is a company within the Virgin Group which plans to provide launch services for small satellites. The company was formed in 2017 to develop the air-launched LauncherOne rocket, launched from Cosmic Girl, which had previously been a project of Virgin Galactic. 1) 2)
Cosmic Girl is no stranger to the Virgin family, coming to Virgin Galactic from its sister company Virgin Atlantic. The jet will now be modified to accommodate a satellite-launching rocket called LauncherOne, beneath the plane's left wing. Virgin Galactic unveiled Cosmic Girl in a recent video last week that shows just how it will loft LauncherOne rockets into space.
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space company is spinning off its LauncherOne rocket program into a separate firm to better position itself to serve the booming small-satellite industry, the company said Thursday (March 2).
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides will hold the same role in the spin-off, called Virgin Orbit, with day-to-day operations now in the hands of Dan Hart, a veteran Boeing executive hired away to become Orbit's president.
The LauncherOne program, based in Long Beach, California, intends to serve the burgeoning small-satellite industry by offering low-cost, quick-turnaround launch services to orbit.
Virgin Orbit is going into space to improve life on Earth. Since 2017, we have been providing dedicated, responsive and affordable launch services for small satellites. 3)
More capable than ever before, small satellites need launch providers that are as nimble and agile as the spacecraft themselves. To meet the needs of today’s satellite makers and operators, Virgin Orbit has developed LauncherOne, the world’s most flexible launch service for commercial and government-built satellites. From small businesses to university groups, Virgin Orbit is lowering barriers by making space more accessible and supporting missions that will make us smarter, safer and wealthier.
Keeping it well and truly in the Virgin family, Virgin Orbit has taken a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 passenger airliner and transformed her into Cosmic Girl, whose mission it is to launch satellites into space from her wings.
If that didn’t sound cool enough, some of Virgin Orbit’s customer missions could provide connectivity to remote areas, track ships and planes, collect climate data, issue disaster responses, provide technology demonstrations, offer space debris cleanups and enhance national security and defence.
Virgin Orbit has introduced a whole new standard of customer service to the space industry.
- The next launch will support the United States Space Force’s STP-28A mission. LauncherOne is already at the Mojave Air and Space Port, ready to support the Rocket Systems Launch Program and carry payloads for the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program.
- Next steps for Virgin Orbit include integration testing with the aircraft and ground equipment, followed by a full launch rehearsal and final mating to the customized Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, that Virgin Orbit uses as a reusable launch pad and mobile mission control room.
- This launch is particularly important for Virgin Orbit as it marks the first night mission for the responsive launch company. The target orbit is approximately 500 km above the Earth’s surface at 45 degrees inclination – an orbit that no other system has reached from the West Coast.
- Virgin Orbit National Systems team will have a key role to play in the Straight Up launch. This team has developed and provided services to the national security community, focused on defence and the protection of the US and its allies through Virgin Orbit’s responsive space capabilities. So far, Virgin Orbit has launched three successful back-to-back launches, including eight DoD Science and Technology demonstrations across two flights.
Figure 1: The launch name, Straight Up, is inspired by American singer Paula Abdul’s breakthrough song Straight Up from her debut studio album Forever Your Girl. Released through Virgin Records on 21 June 1988, it was the most successful debut album ever at the time of its release. The iconic dance-pop tune has remained Abdul’s biggest international hit to date (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- “Virgin Orbit has been rising ‘straight up’ since we began commercial launch operations 18 months ago,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “More and more, we are seeing the importance of space to the security of the US and allied countries. We are honored and committed to supporting the Space Force at this critical time.”
- Mark Baird, President of the newly renamed Virgin Orbit National Systems (formerly VOX Space) added, “We believe this launch will demonstrate the significant maturation and operationalization of a unique capability. I’m excited to see Straight Up, wheels up.”
The Mission Manifest
- US Space Force has procured this launch for the Rocket Systems Launch Program, with payloads provided by the DoD Space Test Program.
- The launch will carry seven satellites from multiple government agencies that are experiments intended to demonstrate novel modular satellite bus, space domain awareness, and adaptive radio frequency technologies.
- The Straight Up launch will support the United States Space Force’s STP-28A mission. The contract to launch STP-28A was awarded to Virgin Orbit National Systems in April 2020 by the United States Space Force.
Table 1: Launch parameters
• March 18, 2022: In a bid to secure a domestic launch capability, the Polish Space Agency (POLSA) signed a letter of intent with Virgin Orbit to use the U.S. company’s air-launched LauncherOne system as soon as next year. 5)
- POLSA and Virgin Orbit officials expect the project to advance space capabilities across the region. Numerous Eastern European nations are talking with Warsaw about participating in the initiative.
- Grzegorz Wrochna, the president of POLSA, said Poland’s space industry has grown rapidly. However, enabling local players to launch smallsats from Polish soil could relieve bottlenecks hampering further growth, he said.
Poland snubs Russian rockets
- The Virgin Orbit agreement indicates Poland’s determination to secure its own launch capability and avoid Russian technology.
- “The European industry is dominated by French rockets, and its capacities are limited,” Wrochna told SpaceNews. “Some companies opt to use Chinese or Russian rockets, but, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the latter option is no longer valid for Poland.”
- Poland is not landlocked, but its 500 kilometers of Baltic Sea coastline sit directly across from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. That makes launching to orbit from a seaside spaceport untenable for Poland.
- “We can’t perform regular vertical flights from Poland because there is a risk a rocket could fall into inhabited land,” Wrochna said. “The technology offered by Virgin Orbit, under which a rocket is attached to an airplane which takes off from a Polish airport, flies over the North Sea and then launches from an altitude of 10,000 meters at a speed of 600 kilometers per hour, is a feasible way into the orbit.”
- Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told SpaceNews the letter of intent allows POLSA and Virgin Orbit to “start the real work to figure out what it will make to make that happen” — beginning with evaluating Polish airports.
- Virgin Orbit’s two-stage Launcher One rocket has flown three successful missions since a failed May 2020 test flight. In December, the company went public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company and now trades on the Nasdaq.
- “Last year, we took our system from development to operation,” Hart said. “We married a 747 plane with a rocket, and for a naval country like Poland, such cooperation unlocks the capability to fly to space. Our system can serve Poland’s commercial, scientific, and national security purposes.”
- As a next step, POLSA plans to undertake an in-depth study to determine an optimal business model for the project.
- “We aim to host the first launch with the use of Virgin Orbit’s solution in the late summer of 2023. Afterwards, we would like to gradually transfer this technology to Poland and train our own pilots,” Wrochna said.
- According to Hart, “now is a very good time to be working towards a launch capability, and this unique capability could serve Poland, but also the entire region.”
Cross-border space cooperation
- As part of Poland’s efforts to drive increased international cooperation across Central and Eastern Europe, POLSA’s ambition is to involve other nations from the Three Seas Initiative, which comprises countries situated along the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas axis. This could potentially expand the technology’s user base across the region with states such as Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia.
- Poland’s space sector hosts a group of fast-growing private industry players, and their involvement will be vital to advancing the project, POLSA’s president said.
- “Sat-Revolution has already launched several satellites using Virgin Orbit’s services, and launching from Poland could facilitate their operations and cut reliance on flights out of the U.S.,” Wrochn said. “Creotech Instruments are also readying for their first flight.”
- Last year under the Polish Imaging Satellites (PIAST) project, a consortium formed by local space companies began to develop three nanosatellites to be operated by Poland’s armed forces and placed into orbit in 2024. As part of the consortium, Creotech Instruments is building the nanosatellites in cooperation with the project’s leader, the country’s Military University of Technology (WAT). The initiative will give the Polish Armed Forces an Earth-observation constellation capable of acquiring images with a ground sample distance of roughly 5-meters resolution.
- Headquartered in Gdańsk, on Poland’s Baltic Sea shore, POLSA is a government entity set up in 2014 and became fully operational in late 2015. Poland’s prime minister oversees the agency.
- Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999, the European Union in 2004, and the European Space Agency in 2012.
• December 10, 2021: Virgin Orbit will fly a Spire CubeSat in addition to several other payloads on its next LauncherOne launch, scheduled for no earlier than Dec. 22. 6)
- Virgin Orbit announced Dec. 9 that Spire’s ADLER-1 three-unit CubeSat had been added to the manifest for that upcoming launch, called “Above the Clouds” by Virgin Orbit. The satellite, whose name is derived from Austrian Debris Detection Low Earth (orbit) Reconnoiter, was developed in partnership with the Austrian Space Forum and Findus Venture GmbH. It will collect data on the environment of “micro” space debris in low Earth orbit using a short-range radar provided by Spire.
- In the statement, Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said only 20 days elapsed between initial discussions and the agreement to add the satellite, and from there 36 hours to get Federal Aviation Administration authorization to add the satellite to the mission and integrate it onto the vehicle.
- “Spire’s recent addition to Above the Clouds is a great example of the flexibility of LauncherOne’s capabilities, the agility of both our teams, and the flexibility and support of the FAA in enabling rapid and responsive deployment of satellites to low Earth orbit,” Hart said.
- Virgin Orbit announced the mission in November. At the time the two customers were the Defense Department’s Space Test Program (STP) and Polish satellite manufacturer SatRevolution. STP is flying several smallsats from government agencies to test communications and navigation technologies, as well as a university payload. SatRevolution is flying its STORK-3 imaging satellite and SteamSat-2, a satellite that will test water-fueled thrusters developed by British company SteamJet Space Systems.
Figure 2: Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 with the LauncherOne rocket attached shortly before the rocket's release May 25 on an unsuccessful orbital launch attempt (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- In the statement about adding the Spire satellite, Virgin Orbit said the launch is scheduled for some time between mid-December and mid-January. According to a notice to mariners published by the U.S. Coast Guard Dec. 8, the company is planning a launch between 5 and 8 p.m. Eastern Dec. 22, with backup dates of Dec. 23 and Jan. 8–10.
- The launch will be the fourth flight of LauncherOne. An inaugural launch in May 2020 failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s first-stage engine shut down several seconds into flight. The company reached orbit on its second launch in January, followed by another successful launch in June.
- Virgin Orbit is also nearing conclusion of its merger with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). The merger, announced Aug. 23, would turn Virgin Orbit into a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq and raise up to $483 million to fund the company’s expansion.
- The two companies announced Dec. 8 that the Securities and Exchange Commission had declared effective the registration statement for the merger, a key step to completing the deal. Shareholders of NextGen are scheduled to vote on the merger Dec. 28, with the companies completing the deal “as soon as practicable” after the vote.
• November 4, 2021: Virgin Orbit, the responsive launch and space solutions company that has announced a planned business combination with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II (“NextGen”), today announced that it has entered into a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) with Ana Holdings Inc., the owners of Japan’s largest airline, to procure twenty flights of the LauncherOne rocket and to lead the effort to provide funds and support for those orbital missions to launch from Japan’s Oita Prefecture. The terms of the MOU call for ANA (All Nippon Airways) Holdings and several of its partners to fund the manufacturing of a new set of the mobile ground support equipment used to prepare Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system for flight from a pre-existing runway, with a target of making Oita a LauncherOne-ready spaceport by as soon as the end of 2022, pending appropriate regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan. 7)
- Japan’s impressive aerospace industry has long been at the forefront of satellite technology innovation. However, the available launch services in Japan – and throughout all of Asia – have always been launched from fixed sites on the ground. Supported by ANA’s premier logistics and transport services, Virgin Orbit is set to change that by bringing air-launch to the Eastern Hemisphere for the first time in history.
- By using a customized 747 as its flying launch pad, mobile mission control, and fully re-usable first stage, LauncherOne gains a substantial performance boost over a similarly sized ground-launched system. Additionally, the airplane’s ability to cover large distances between taking off and releasing the rocket provides both weather resiliency and direct-inject orbital flexibility that until now, has never been available on the Asian market.
Figure 3: Signing of the MOU with Koji Shibata, ANA Group Representative Director and Executive Vice President (left) and Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- Virgin Orbit’s flight-proven air-launch service provides a unique capability for ANA’s customer base in the booming commercial ecosystem for space in Asia. The number of space start-ups in Japan has more than doubled since 2015, driven by increasing level of investment and government activities to energize and accelerate the private sector. The increasing amount of funding and investment in the space industry has encouraged start-ups to venture into space businesses, and legacy companies to expand their offerings – and launch is a critical enabler for those businesses and their future growth.
- Koji Shibata, ANA Group Representative Director and Executive Vice President, noted, “ANA is excited to work with Virgin Orbit to offer responsive launch and space solutions services to customers in Japan. Demand for satellite launches in Japan and Asia is rapidly increasing, and it is hoped that the number of launches will be desired from the customers. Virgin Orbit offers something no other launch company can, and that capability will be extremely valuable to the growing space industry in Japan and throughout the region.”
- “ANA is a world-class company with an incredible legacy of aerospace innovation, commercial success, and customer satisfaction that makes them an absolutely ideal partner to bring air-launch to Asia,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “We are elated to be partnering with such a talented and honored firm to move space launch forward and serve the rapidly growing need for launch. We look forward to collaborating with ANA to foster the ongoing transformation of the space economy.”
- About Virgin Orbit: Virgin Orbit operates one of the most flexible and responsive space launch systems ever built. Founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2017, the company began commercial service in 2021, and has already delivered commercial, civil, national security, and international satellites into orbit. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, and are air-launched from a modified 747- 400 carrier aircraft that allows Virgin Orbit to operate from locations all over the world in order to best serve each customer’s needs. On August 22, 2021, Virgin Orbit entered into a definitive agreement to combine with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II (“NextGen”, NASDAQ: NGCA), a special purpose acquisition company, which would result in Virgin Orbit becoming a publicly listed company on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the symbol VORB.
• August 29, 2021: Virgin Orbit is one step closer to getting approval to launch satellites from Guam, a U.S. island territory in the Western Pacific. 8)
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Aug. 27 released its final environmental assessment that found “no significant impact” for Virgin Orbit to conduct launches using its Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft and LauncherOne rocket from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
- According to FAA’s report, Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of 25 launches over the next five years to place small satellites into a variety of low Earth orbits. However, the completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee the FAA will issue a launch license to Virgin Orbit, the agency said. “The company must also meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements.”
- William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, told SpaceNews that the favorable environmental review marks a “significant step towards achieving our launch license for orbital spaceflight from Guam. We’re very grateful to the team at the FAA for the constant dialog as we have moved through the process.”
- A spinoff of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit plans to launch small satellites that weigh up to 500 kg. The company completed its first successful launch in January and its second in June from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Virgin Orbit intends to launch from England’s Spaceport Cornwall and from Andersen Air Force as soon as its license is approved.
Figure 4: Virgin Orbit operates the air-launch LauncherOne system, which features a two-stage rocket launched from a Boeing 747 aircraft (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- The Boeing carrier aircraft flies LauncherOne rockets to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (~13.7 km) and releases them. The rockets then ignite their engine and blast off into space.
- The U.S. Air Force’s 36th Wing at Andersen participated in the environmental review process. According to the FAA, Virgin Orbit would perform integration, mating, propellant loading operations, and takeoff and landing operations on Andersen Air Force Base. No construction or ground-disturbing activities would occur and there would be no change to existing infrastructure on Andersen.
• August 24, 2021: Virgin Orbit will use the proceeds of a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company to expand its launch business and develop a satellite constellation for IoT (Internet of Things) and Earth observation services. 9)
- Virgin Orbit announced Aug. 23 that it will merge with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, a SPAC, in a deal expected to close at the end of this year. The deal includes a concurrent $100 million funding round backed by Boeing and AE Industrial Partners, providing Virgin Orbit with as much as $483 million in capital before transaction expenses.
- Greg Summe, co-founder of NextGen, said in an investor call that he established the SPAC earlier this year to “find a high-growth technology company with a rapidly growing market, highly differentiated capability and an outstanding leadership team. We have found the perfect partner in Virgin Orbit.”
- In a presentation released by Virgin Orbit Aug. 23, the company projected increasing its revenue by a factor of more than 100 over the next five years. The company estimates $15 million in revenue in 2021 but forecasts double- and triple-digit percentage growth through 2026, reaching $2.06 billion.
- The majority of that revenue would come from its current launch business, using its LauncherOne rocket that is air-launched from a Boeing 747. About 40% of the proceeds of the deal would go toward scaling up production of the LauncherOne system, including investments in advanced manufacturing capabilities.
Figure 5: OneWeb says Virgin Orbit's dispute overlooks contract modifications made two years ago (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- Summe and Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, emphasized the advantages of air launch during the investor call. “Our approach gives us tremendous efficiency,” Hart said, and provides advantages from reduced environmental impacts to being able to operate from many airports.
- In both the presentation and the call, they also claimed that LauncherOne was cheaper than its competitors. Hart said that his company offers “the lowest cost per kilogram in the market,” but did not disclose a specific cost number. Virgin Orbit had been widely seen in the industry as more expensive that some of its competitors who offer small launch vehicles, while SpaceX has offered a low-cost option — $1 million for 200 kg, or $5,000 per kg — for smallsat rideshare payloads.
- While neither Hart nor Summe discussed details of LauncherOne development, the company plans to spend 35% of the proceeds of the deal on research and development, such as launch upgrades. The investor presentation briefly outlined a “future technology development roadmap” that includes upgrades to the rocket to roughly double its payload performance to 500–600 kg. The company is studying an upper stage and orbital transfer vehicle as well as evaluating the ability to recover and reuse the first stage.
- The presentation also included a concept called LauncherTwo, with a rocket mounted on top of the 747 rather than under its left wing like LauncherOne. The vehicle included wings and larger tail fins. That vehicle, Virgin Orbit said, offers “potential tripling of meaningful performance increase.”
- Virgin Orbit’s ambitions go beyond more and larger launch vehicles. The company says it will establish a “space solutions” business, developing and launching a constellation of satellites to provide IoT and Earth observation services. Virgin Orbit foresees providing IoT services for the agriculture, aviation, maritime and pipeline monitoring markets and a “complete multimodal offering” of visible, infrared and radar imagery.
- The company plans to launch its first four satellites in early 2023, two with IoT payloads and two with imagery payloads. That would be followed by a “full constellation thereafter,” but it didn’t disclose the size of the constellation or when it would be deployed.
- Virgin Orbit projects its first space solutions revenue in 2023 at $10 million, growing to $436 million in 2026, or more than 20% of its total revenue forecast for that year.
- Those high growth projections for both space solutions and launch services are required to be profitable. The company estimates it will have negative earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) of $155 million in 2021. It expects to near break-even in 2023 and have a positive EBITDA of $229 million in 2024, growing to $854 million in 2026.
- In the presentation, Virgin Orbit estimates it will need about $420 million in cash from the second half of 2021 through 2023 to reach profitability. The company expects that, after expenses from the SPAC deal, it will net $418 million. However, that figure could decrease if NextGen shareholders elect to redeem their shares rather than participate in the merger, an issue seen in SPAC mergers both inside the space industry and in other industries in recent months.
• August 23, 2021: Small launch vehicle developer Virgin Orbit will go public through a merger with a SPAC (Special-Purpose Acquisition Company) in a deal that includes an investment by Boeing, the company announced Aug. 23. 10)
- Virgin Orbit will merge with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, a SPAC that holds $383 million in capital. A concurrent private investment in public equity (PIPE) round, with participation from Boeing and AE Industrial Partners, will provide an additional $100 million.
- The deal would give Virgin Orbit with up to $483 million in capital, depending on how many shares in NextGen are redeemed by shareholders. Some recent SPAC deals, both inside the space industry and in other sectors, have seen relatively high redemption rates as shareholders effectively get their money back rather than hold shares in the merged company.
- The funds will go toward scaling up manufacturing of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket and to fund growth of its “space solutions business” and new product development initiatives, the company said.
- The merger would turn Virgin Orbit into a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq with an initial valuation of $3.2 billion. Existing Virgin Galactic shareholders will own 85% of the merged company, with NextGen owning 10% and the PIPE investors and SPAC sponsors the remaining 5%. The companies expect the deal to close by the end of the year.
Figure 6: Virgin Orbit, which operates the LauncherOne air-launch system, will raise up to $483 million and be valued at $3.2 billion in a SPAC merger announced Aug. 23 (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- “Our success in launch has driven the business forward, and now we expect this investment will enable us to build on our R&D efforts and our incredible team,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a statement.
- “The space economy is developing rapidly and Virgin Orbit is well positioned to benefit through its ability to competitively launch at any time, from any place on Earth, to any orbit and inclination,” said George Mattson and Greg Summe, co-founders of NextGen, in the statement. “We look forward to leveraging our industry and financial experience, along with our public company leadership and governance experience, to help Virgin Orbit deliver the next chapter of its exciting journey as a public company.”
- Virgin Orbit had been seeking to raise a new round of funding since last year, according to industry officials. The company’s initial focus was on a private round of funding, but the company later turned its attention to SPACs as that alternative financial vehicle became popular. Media reports in June indicated that NextGen was pursuing a deal with Virgin Orbit.
- Hart, in a call with reporters shortly before the company’s most recent launch in June, declined to comment on its financing efforts, including the reports of the interest from NextGen. “We’ve had terrific support from our investors, and continue to have very, very solid support,” he said.
- Virgin Orbit operates the air-launch LauncherOne system, which features a two-stage rocket launched from a Boeing 747 aircraft. The company has carried out three launch attempts to date. After a failure on the first launch in May 2020, the company reached orbit in January carrying a set of CubeSats for NASA. It launched its latest mission June 30, placing seven CubeSats into orbit for the Defense Department, Royal Netherlands Air Force and Polish smallsat developer SatRevolution.
- Hart said in June the company planned one more launch this year, followed by six in 2022. The launches next year will include missions out of Guam and England’s Spaceport Cornwall. The company’s launches to date have flown out of Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
- The company has been working on upgrades to LauncherOne but has disclosed few details. NASA’s Stennis Space Center said in an Aug. 18 statement that Virgin Orbit signed a Space Act Agreement with the center in November 2020, giving the company access to NASA expertise and test facilities there. The company performed a series of tests between March and July of a new thrust chamber assembly for the NewtonThree engine used in LauncherOne’s first stage.
- “We continue to maintain an excellent working relationship and look forward to our latest N3.2 engine development testing program that will take us into 2022,” Tom Alexiou, program manager for Virgin Orbit’s evolved launch vehicle, said in the NASA statement, but didn’t elaborate on those future tests or, more generally, how it was evolving the launch vehicle.
Launches of LauncherOne of Virgin Orbit — in reverse order
LauncherOne is a two stage orbital launch vehicle developed by the commercial company Virgin Orbit. It is an air launch to orbit rocket, designed to launch "smallsat" payloads of 300 kg (660 lb) into Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), following air launch from a carrier aircraft at high altitude. The first attempted orbital test flight was completed on 25 May 2020, but failed to reach space due to an anomaly that occurred shortly after the vehicle's release from a Boeing 747-400, named Cosmic Girl, over the Pacific Ocean. 11)
Above the Clouds mission
• January 13, 2022: Virgin Orbit placed seven CubeSats for three customers into orbit on the third consecutive successful operational flight of its LauncherOne air-launch system. 12)
- The LauncherOne satellite mission ”Above the Clouds” air-launched on 13 January 2022 at 4:39 p.m EST (22:39 UTC) on the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747-400 aircraft of Virgin Orbit from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA.
- Virgin Orbit shifted the drop point for this launch compared to previous ones, moving it to the west southwest, further out over the Pacific. That enabled the rocket to place the satellite into orbit at an inclination of 45 degrees, which the company said was the first time that a launch from a West Coast site reached that inclination.
- “Our ability to achieve a 45-degree inclination out of the West Coast increases significantly the utility of a launch out of the West Coast,” Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said during a Jan. 11 call with reporters about the mission. “That kind of flexibility is unprecedented.”
- The launch is the first of six that Virgin Orbit has scheduled for 2022. Two of those are planned for Spaceport Cornwall in England, while the rest will fly out of Mojave.
Mission Manifest: 13)
The U.S. Department of Defense, which is launching several Research and Development (R&D) satellites from multiple government agencies that are experiments in space-based communications and in-space navigation, as well as a university payload sponsored by NASA. This launch, also known as STP-27VPB, was awarded to Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space by the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as part of the DoD Space Test Program’s (STP) Rapid Agile Launch (RALI) Initiative. DIU is an organization working to accelerate the adoption of commercial technology into the U.S. military to strengthen national security.
The STP-27VPB mission for the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is composed of several research and development satellites.
1) The Polish company SatRevolution, which is launching two EO nanosatellites: STORK-3 and SteamSat-2. STORK-3 join the STORK-4 and STORK-5 Marta satellites placed in orbit on our June 2021 mission as part of the SatRevolution’s Earth-observation capabilities, with a focus on serving customers in the agricultural sector to take medium-resolution photos. SteamSat-2 is a technology demonstrated for SteamJet Space System (UK)’s innovative water-fueled thrusters for in-space propulsion.
2) Spire Global, a satellite imaging provider and a late-load addition to our manifest, will launch Adler-1, which was developed in partnership with the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) and Findus Venture GmbH. Adler-1 is part of a growing movement to address the issue of dangerous space debris and improve sustainability in Low Earth Orbit. The 30 x 10 x 10 cm satellite will study the space debris environment in Low Earth Orbit to complement the space debris models by obtaining in-situ data. Spire Global was a late addition to the Above the Clouds manifest, taking advantage of Virgin Orbit’s industry-leading responsive capabilities.
3) PAN (Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation)-A, and PAN-B is a technology demonstration mission (ELaNa 29) to launch two 3U CubeSats that will autonomously rendezvous and dock in low-Earth orbit. PAN started as a collaboration between NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Cornell University.
Virgin Orbit launches CubeSats on second operational mission
• July 12, 2021: MDA’s (Missile Defence Agency) CubeSats were two of the seven government and commercial payloads launched in Virgin Orbit’s second operational mission. 14)
Figure 7: Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and VOX Space engineers integrate the CubeSat networked communications experiment at the company’s integration facility in Long Beach, Calif., in preparation for launch June 30, 2021 (image credit: VOX Space)
- Two Missile Defense Agency CubeSats launched June 30 aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully began communicating with ground stations last week, the agency announced July 12.
- The satellites are the first of a series of network communications experiments planned by MDA to demonstrate mesh networking in space and satellite-to-ground links. The CubeSats will mimic two suborbital missile interceptor vehicles and test communications between them.
- “Transmitting data between interceptors, sensors and communication systems is critical to a missile defense architecture that must quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets,” MDA said in a news release.
- MDA is developing a hypersonic and ballistic sensor payload to detect and track missile threats.
- “The missile defense architecture will require communications between interceptors, sensors and command and control systems to quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets. The CubeSats will allow the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably,” said Walt Chai, MDA director for space sensors.
- MDA’s CubeSats were two of seven government and commercial payloads launched June 30 in Virgin Orbit’s second operational mission.
- Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is air-launched from a Boeing 747 aircraft.
• June 30, 2021: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully launched seven CubeSats June 30 in the second operational mission of the air-launch system. 15)
- Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 9:50 a.m. Eastern. It flew to its drop point over the Pacific Ocean off the coast from Southern California, releasing the LauncherOne rocket at 10:47 a.m. EDT.
- The rocket’s two stages performed as expected, placing the upper stage into orbit. After a coast phase, the upper stage reignited its engine for a second burn and then released its payload of seven satellites about 40 minutes after first-stage ignition into 500-kilometer orbits at an inclination of 60 degrees, although the company didn’t provide formal confirmation of successful deployment until about two hours later.
- “The team did a phenomenal job,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said on the company webcast of the launch during the upper stage’s coast phase. “Every single countdown has its own personality. This one had a couple of little, tiny turns along the way. The team just jumped on those, resolved them quickly.”
Figure 8: An onboard camera view of the payloads on LauncherOne's "Tubular Bells: Part One" mission June 30, taken as the second stage ascended towards orbit (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
- The seven satellites on the “Tubular Bells: Part One” mission come from three customers. Four unnamed satellites are from the Defense Department’s Space Test Program, under a contract that is part of the DOD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative. MDA (Missile Defence Ageny) launched 2 CubeSats.
- Two satellites, STORK-4 and STORK-5, were built by SatRevolution, a Polish smallsat developer planning a constellation of satellites for medium-resolution multispectral imagery. Virgin Orbit announced June 29 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with SatRevolution that could lead to launches of future satellites.
- The seventh satellite is BRIK 2, a six-unit CubeSat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force developed by Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space. The satellite, the first for the Dutch military, will test communications technologies and demonstrate how CubeSats can support Dutch military operations.
- This was the third LauncherOne mission and the second consecutive successful one. After the first LauncherOne mission, a demo flight without payloads, failed to reach orbit in May 2020 because of a ruptured propellant line, the second launch in January successfully placed 10 cubesats into orbit on a NASA-funded mission.
- Hart said in a June 29 call with reporters that he expected to perform at least one more LauncherOne mission this year, again out of Mojave. He said Virgin Orbit will accelerate operations in 2022 with six launches expected, including flights from Guam and England.
- “Today is Virgin Orbit’s day,” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said on the company webcast. He, like Hart, was in Mojave to watch the takeoff of Cosmic Girl on the mission. “It’s now hopefully going to become almost routine.”
- “There are so many people that need satellites in space,” he added, “and we’re going to be able to deliver.”
Tubular Bells, Part One
• May 7, 2021: Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next LauncherOne mission for June 2021, carrying a mix of defense and commercial CubeSats. 16)
- Virgin Orbit said May 6 that it will launch six CubeSats on its next flight of its LauncherOne vehicle in June, flying out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The air-launched rocket will deploy the payloads into orbits at an altitude of 500 kilometers and inclination of 60 degrees.
- The launch will be the first since its successful Launch Demo 2 mission in January, which carried 10 CubeSats for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program. That launch was the first successful mission for LauncherOne, after a failed launch of the vehicle in May 2020.
- Three of the CubeSats will be from the Defense Department through the Space Test Program’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, under a contract awarded to Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space. The company did not disclose which satellites will fly on LauncherOne under that contract.
- A fourth CubeSat will be BRIK 2, a 6U CubeSat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force developed by Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space. The satellite will test communications technologies and demonstrate how CubeSats can support Dutch military operations. BRIK 2 will also be a test of “late-load” integration of CubeSats onto the LauncherOne vehicle shortly before launch.
- The final two CubeSats will be STORK-4 and STORK-5 from SatRevolution, a Polish company. Those 3U CubeSats will be the first in a 14-satellite constellation proposed by SatRevolution to provide medium-resolution multispectral imagery.
- The announcement of the next launch was the latest in a series of developments for Virgin Orbit as it seeks to move into regular operations of the LauncherOne system, which uses a modified Boeing 747 as its launch platform. The company has touted the flexibility of an air-launch system, which can launch to any inclination from a wide range if airports, as a major selling point.
- Virgin Orbit announced April 28 that the Brazilian government selected the company as one of four commercial launch operators to use the Alcântara Launch Center in Brazil, alongside C6 Launch, Hyperion and Orion AST. Virgin Orbit is the only air-launch system of the four and the only company with an operational orbital launch vehicle.
- Alcântara would join Mojave and airports in Guam, England and Japan as potential launch sites for LauncherOne. The company, though, did not offer a schedule for a first flight from Alcântara.
- The company is making progress toward a first launch from Spaceport Cornwall, also known as Cornwall Airport Newquay, in southwestern England. Virgin announced May 3 that it selected a British company, AVS (Added Value Solutions), to build the ground support equipment needed to support LauncherOne missions from Cornwall. The first LauncherOne launch from Cornwall is tentatively scheduled for 2022.
- Virgin Orbit also secured a new customer April 21, signing up QinetiQ and HyperSat to launch a constellation of six hyperspectral satellites. The first satellite will launch on a LauncherOne rocket in 2023. Company spokesperson Kendall Russell said there’s no schedule yet for the launch of the rest of the constellation.
- Virgin Orbit is taking a page from one of its competitors in the small launch market, Rocket Lab, by naming its missions. The company said the June launch is called “Tubular Bells, Part One,” after the first track on the first album released by Virgin Records, the record company founded nearly a half-century ago by Richard Branson. The nontraditional album became one of the most popular albums of the 1970s.
- “For the first flight after the conclusion of our test program, what could be more appropriate than to tip our hat to that creative work and those bold decisions?” the company said in a statement about the upcoming launch.
Launch Demo 2: An air-launched rocket, built by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, reached orbit on January 17, 2021 (Sunday, 19:39 UTC) for the first time, delivering 10 experimental CubeSats for NASA and positioning the company for the start of commercial operations. 17) 18)
The success adds another company to the growing club of private space companies capable of launching satellites. Virgin Orbit is second in a new wave of commercial small launch companies — after Rocket Lab — to accomplish the task of putting payloads in orbit.
Virgin Orbit aims to offer small satellite operators — ranging from NASA and research institutions, to the U.S. and foreign militaries, to commercial startups — dedicated launch opportunities from sites around the world.
“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible,” Branson said in a statement. “It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, ‘Cosmic Girl,’ send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit. This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”
“A new gateway to space has just sprung open! That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier,” Hart said.
Virgin Orbit said the successful test launch will allow the company to commence commercial operations.
“With this successful demonstration in the books, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission,” the company said in a statement. “Virgin Orbit has subsequent launches booked by customers ranging from the U.S. Space Force and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force to commercial customers like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.”
The use of an air-launched rocket deployed from a Boeing 747 carrier jet comes with some limitations and technical challenges, but Virgin Orbit says it gives the company flexibility in where it launches and the orbits it can reach.
In addition to the company’s primary launch base at Mojave, California, Virgin Orbit plans launches from Guam, and is studying basing missions in the United Kingdom and other sites around the world.
Figure 9: Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft — a Boeing 747 named “Cosmic Girl” — took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 2:56 p.m. EDT (11:56 a.m. EDT) Monday (25 May 2020) with the company’s LauncherOne rocket under its left wing (image credit: Matt Hartman / Shorealone Films)
Figure 10: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket fires its NewtonThree main engine moments after release from the Boeing 747 carrier jet, named “Cosmic Girl.” (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
The use of an air-launched rocket deployed from a Boeing 747 carrier jet comes with some limitations and technical challenges, but Virgin Orbit says it gives the company flexibility in where it launches and the orbits it can reach.
In addition to the company’s primary launch base at Mojave, California, Virgin Orbit plans launches from Guam, and is studying basing missions in the United Kingdom and other sites around the world.
Virgin Orbit’s 747 carrier aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 10:38 a.m. PST (1:38 p.m. EST; 1838 GMT) with the nearly 29-ton LauncherOne rocket mounted under its left wing.
After heading west, then turning south to cross California’s Central Coast, the aircraft’s two pilots and two launch engineers readied the rocket for release.
Piloted by Kelly Latimer, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot, the 747 jumbo jet entered a steep climb of more than 25 degrees just before the crew sent the command to drop the 70-foot-long (21-meter) rocket around 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over the Pacific Ocean off the coast Southern California at 11:39 a.m. PST (2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT) Sunday.
Five seconds later, pumps inside the rocket’s NewtonThree main engine spun up to ignite LauncherOne’s first stage and accelerate toward the southeast over the Pacific. Burning kerosene in combination with liquid oxygen, the main engine generated 73,500 pounds of thrust during a three-minute burn to booster the rocket out of the atmosphere.
After crossing over Antarctica and coasting halfway around the world, the rocket reignited its second stage engine for a few seconds, targeting a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) orbit. The rocket was programmed to deploy its 10 nanosatellite payloads about one minute later.
It took nearly two hours for Virgin Orbit to confirm the results of the final burn and CubeSat separations.
“Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit!” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space, carrying nine CubeSat missions into low Earth orbit for our friends (at) NASA.”
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne became the second air-launched rocket to put satellites into orbit, following the solid-fueled Pegasus launch vehicle developed by Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman. The LauncherOne rocket is the first liquid-fueled satellite booster to fly into orbit off an airborne platform.
Sunday’s mission, called “Launch Demo 2” by Virgin Orbit, followed nearly eight months after the first LauncherOne rocket failed seconds after release from the 747 carrier aircraft. Virgin Orbit said a break in a liquid oxygen feed line to the LauncherOne’s first stage engine caused the failure a few seconds after the engine ignited.
The LauncherOne vehicle can deliver up to 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of payload to a low-altitude equatorial orbit, or up to 661 pounds (300 kg) to a 310-mile-high (500 km) polar orbit, according to Virgin Orbit.
The payloads aboard the launch Sunday had a combined mass of about 253 pounds, or 115 kg, including adapters and harnesses, according to Kendall Russell, a Virgin Orbit spokesperson.
Although there were 10 small satellites on-board, the prime objective of Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission was to “characterize the performance of the system and to get the data as we go through the sequence of events,” Hart said before the launch.
“We have what we consider NASA’s more risk-tolerant payloads, but from our point of view, they’re real payloads, and we want to get them to the right place,” Hart said last week. “It’s a new system, and the objective of a demo flight is to get the data on the system. So getting the data is internally our primary objectives, and our success criteria.”
NASA booked the mission in 2015 with Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit’s previous parent company, through the VCLS (Venture Class Launch Services) program. NASA established the VCLS program to provide rides to orbit for small research nanosatellites, and help give business to startup companies developing smallsat launchers.
The VCLS missions are “intended to be demonstration flights,” according to Scott Higginbotham, a mission manager in the Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
NASA solicits proposals from U.S. research and educational institutions for CubeSat experiments through the CubeSat Launch Initiative. The agency pays for the launch of the CubeSats it selects, while the spacecraft themselves are typically funded through other sources.
“Our first customer on this flight, NASA, has done some incredible things with small satellites, and we really look forward to pushing forward with NASA in exploring our solar system, our universe, and our Earth with small satellites,” Hart said in a pre-launch press conference. “NASA is moving toward using small satellites as a more cost-effective way of doing Earth science.”
Figure 11: Payload technicians prepare one of the 10 CubeSats on the Launch Demo 2 mission for loading into its deployment mechanism (image credit: Virgin Orbit)
NASA called the Virgin Orbit mission ELaNa-20 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-20). The 10 CubeSats aboard Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission were built by university students and NASA researchers.
Figure 12: An overview of the CubeSat payloads provided by NASA and Virgin Orbit (Ref. 17)
Launch Demo 1: May 25, 2020: Making its first flight, a privately-funded air-launched rocket developed and built by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit failed to reach space Monday after release from the company’s modified 747 carrier airplane over the Pacific Ocean. 19)
Figure 13: Mission Recap: Launch Demo. We said the main product of this flight would be data, and wow, did we get a lot of it! After diving into our early analyses, we wanted to share more about the flight — including both the many things that went well and what we know about the areas where we’ll need to improve (video credit: Virgin Orbit)
Designed to haul small satellites into orbit, Virgin Orbit’s two-stage LauncherOne suffered an “anomaly” soon after ignition of its kerosene-fed first stage engine, the company said.
“LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree,” Virgin Orbit said. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.”
The company said the aircraft and its four-person crew were safe. The “Cosmic Girl” carrier jet landed back at Mojave at 4:26 p.m. EDT (1:26 p.m. PDT; 20:26 GMT).
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3) ”Opening space for good,” Virgin Orbit, 2020, URL: https://www.virgin.com/virgin-companies/virgin-orbit
4) Natalie Clarkson, ”Virgin Orbit announces next launch: Straight Up,” Virgin Orbit, 9 May 2022, URL: https://www.virgin.com/about-virgin/latest/virgin-orbit-announces-next-launch-straight-up
5) Jarosław Adamowski, ”Poland, Virgin Orbit partner on Eastern Europe satellite launch initiative,” SpaceNews, 18 March 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/poland-virgin-orbit-partner-on-eastern-europe-launch-initiative/
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7) New agreement between Virgin Orbit and Ana Holdings sets the stage for twenty LauncherOne flights from Japan,” Virgin Orbit, 4 November 2021, URL: https://virginorbit.com/the-latest/new-agreement-between-virgin-orbit-and-ana-holdings-sets-the-stage-for-twenty-launcherone-flights-from-japan/
8) Sandra Erwin, ”Virgin Orbit clears environmental review to launch satellites from Guam,” SpaceNews, 29 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/virgin-orbit-clears-environmental-review-to-launch-satellites-from-guam/
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14) Sandra Erwin, ”Missile Defense Agency confirms deployment of cubesats launched by Virgin Orbit,” SpaceNews, 12 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/missile-defense-agency-confirms-deployment-of-cubesats-launched-by-virgin-orbit/
15) Jeff Foust, ”Virgin Orbit launches cubesats on second operational mission,” SpaceNews, 30 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/virgin-orbit-launches-cubesats-on-second-operational-mission/
16) Jeff Foust, ”Virgin Orbit schedules next LauncherOne mission for June,” SpaceNews, 7 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/virgin-orbit-schedules-next-launcherone-mission-for-june/
17) Stephen Clark, ”Virgin’s satellite launcher reaches orbit for first time,” Spaceflight Now, 18 January 2021, URL: https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/01/18/virgins-satellite-launcher-reaches-orbit-on-second-try/
18) Paul Brinkmann, ”Virgin Orbit rocket reaches orbit, satellites deployed,” Space Daily, 17 January 2021, URL: https://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Virgin_Orbit_rocket_reaches_orbit_satellites_deployed_999.html
19) ”Mission recap: our first Launch Demo,” Virgin Orbit, 27 May 2020, URL: https://virginorbit.com/the-latest/mission-recap-our-first-launch-demo/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (email@example.com).
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