Virgin Orbit planning to launch seven small satellites Wednesday

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket under the wing of the company’s Boeing 747 carrier jet at Mojave Air and Space Port. Credit: Virgin Orbit

On the heels of its first successful orbital launch in January, Virgin Orbit is gearing up for its first operational mission Wednesday with a flight of its air-launched rocket off the coast of California to deploy seven small satellites.

Virgin Orbit, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, has a launch window of roughly two hours Wednesday to release the LauncherOne rocket to fire into orbit.

“We have completed our L-minus one day preflight briefing from our pilots, and the system is green for launch,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “So we are good to go at this time.”

Early Wednesday, ground crews at Mojave Air and Space Port in California plan to load kerosene and liquid oxygen into Virgin Orbit’s two-stage rocket mounted under the left wing of the company’s Boeing 747 carrier aircraft.

After final closeouts and pre-flight checks, the 747 flight crew will taxi to the end of the runway and depart from Mojave for an hour-long cruise to the mission’s drop point just southwest of the Channel Islands.

Takeoff from Mojave is scheduled between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. PDT (9 a.m. and 11 a.m. EDT; 1300-1500 GMT), according to Virgin Orbit. The launch is expected about one hour after takeoff.

The flight crew will command release of the 70-foot-long (21-meter) rocket on a southeast heading around 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over the Pacific Ocean off the coast Southern California.

The fully-fueled LauncherOne rocket, weighing roughly 57,000 pounds (26 metric tons), will ignite its NewtonThree main engine about five seconds after release from the 747 jumbo jet.

Burning kerosene in combination with liquid oxygen, the main engine will generate 73,500 pounds of thrust during a three-minute burn to booster the rocket out of the atmosphere. The NewtonFour second stage engine will ignite moments after jettison of the the LauncherOne booster stage, followed by separation of the payload fairing once the vehicle reaches space.

After a six-minute upper stage firing, the rocket will reach a preliminary orbit. A second burn of the NewtonFour upper stage engine is expected to place the mission’s seven CubeSat payloads into a circular orbit about 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth at an inclination of 60 degrees to the equator.

The mission Wednesday is the first since Virgin Orbit declared the LauncherOne system ready for commercial service. It’s the third flight overall for the expendable LauncherOne rocket, following a test launch in May 2020 that faltered moments after main engine ignition and a second demonstration flight Jan. 17 that successfully reached orbit with a batch of NASA-sponsored CubeSats.

LauncherOne is designed to deliver small satellites to orbit, placing Virgin Orbit in competition with other smallsat launch providers such as Rocket Lab.

Ground teams inside a mobile clean room close out the payload fairing on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket at Mojave Air and Space Port. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The seven payloads riding on Wednesday’s mission, which Virgin Orbit has dubbed “Tubular Bells, Part One” in honor of the first album released by Virgin Records, include CubeSats from the U.S. military, the Dutch military, and the Polish company SatRevolution.

There are four CubeSats for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program on Wednesday’s launch. The payloads are part of the STP-27VPA mission awarded to VOX Space, a Virgin Orbit subsidiary charged with marketing launch services to the U.S. government.

The military’s Defense Innovation Unit awarded the contract to VOX Space for the STP-27VPA mission. Virgin Orbit and the U.S. military have not identified the names or details about the four CubeSats, but the Space Force said in a press release the small spacecraft come from multiple Defense Department agencies and will demonstrate “advanced space technologies.”

four Research and Development satellites from multiple DoD agencies to demonstrate advanced space technologies. It is the first DoD mission to utilize VOX Space’s “LauncherOne” air-launch system, deploying from a modified 747 aircraft.

“We are excited to partner with VOX Space as part of our Rapid Agile Launch Initiative,” said Col. Tim Sejba, program executive officer for space development.  “This first mission will demonstrate our ability to leverage commercially available launch solutions from a non-traditional location to deliver innovative technology to orbit.”

The BRIK 2 nanosatellite for the Royal Netherlands Air Force will also launch on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.

The small satellite is slightly bigger than a carton of milk, according to the Dutch Ministry of Defense. Built by the Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space, BRIK 2 is the Dutch military’s first satellite. Dutch officials say the primary goal of the project is to demonstrate that small satellites like BRIK 2 can support information and communications applications for the military.

Other partners on the BRIK 2 mission include the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Center, which developed a signals intelligence payload for detecting and locating the source of radio waves, such as military radar installations. The satellite also has an instrument to map disturbances in the ionosphere, a layer in the upper atmosphere that can impact radio communications, and a payload to relay secure communications from troops to military headquarters.

The aerospace center said in 2017 that the entire BRIK 2 project would cost about 2.5 million euros, or about $3 million, including satellite construction and launch expenses.

Engineers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the University of Oslo in Norway also contributed to the BRIK 2 mission.

The Dutch BRIK 2 satellite. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The other two satellites aboard Virgin Orbit’s first operational launch are the STORK 4 and STORK 5 Earth-imaging spacecraft for the Polish company SatRevolution.

Designed for a three-year mission in orbit, the two STORK satellites host optical cameras for remote sensing applications. The instruments will collect multispectral medium-resolution imagery and data for agricultural and energy customers in the United States, Poland, and other countries, according to Virgin Orbit.

SatRevolution is developing a constellation of 14 STORK satellites. The small satellites on Virgin Orbit’s mission are the first two STORK payloads to launch.

On the eve of Wednesday’s mission, Virgin Orbit and SatRevolution announced a memorandum of understanding that could pave the way for numerous LauncherOne missions to deploy hundreds of SatRevolution payloads through 2026.

In a press release announcing the agreement, SatRevolution said it aims to launch 1,024 nanosatellites to low Earth orbit by 2026  to provide “round-the-clock Earth Observation, complete manufacturing and management of the satellites, as well as compliance monitoring, and on-site engineering consulting.”

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