Virgin Orbit Drops Out of DARPA Launch Challenge

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 performs its first captive carry of LauncherOne. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Citing more pressing launch commitments, Virgin Orbit has pulled out of the DARPA Launch Challenge. This withdrawal appears to leave the multi-million dollar rapid launch competition with precisely one unidentified competitor.

“We appreciate the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s leadership in constructing the Launch Challenge and we remain very supportive of the underlying goals of the competition,” Virgin Orbit said in a statement posted on Linkedin. “However, after comparing DARPA’s requested timeline with our commitments to our commercial and government customers, we have elected to withdraw from the competition.

“Our focus remains on completing our final engineering demonstrations and on serving the customers already on our launch manifest,” the statement said. “The market is actively validating the need for responsive, dedicated launch and we are hard at work serving those customers and bringing a new capability into service in the coming months.”

Virgin Orbit will use a modified Boeing 747 aircraft to orbit satellites using its LauncherOne booster. An initial flight test is expected this fall.

In April, DARPA announced it had selected Virgin Orbit, Vector Launch and an unidentified company to compete to conduct two satellite launches within two weeks. Virgin entered the competition through VOX Space, a fully-owned subsidiary established to handle national security launches.

In August, Vector announced a “pause” in operations “response to a significant change in financing.” CEO Jim Cantrell departed and all employees were laid off. It’s not clear if or when Vector might resume operations.

For the first flight, the three competitors were to receive instructions about the location a few weeks prior to launch date, and exact details on the payload and intended orbit only days before launch.

A second flight would follow two weeks later. In April, DARPA said it was targeting both launches for early 2020.

“Teams will receive a $2M prize for successfully delivering payloads to orbit in the first launch,” DARPA said in a press release. “For a successful second launch, prizes of $10 million, $9 million, and $8 million are available for the top three teams respectively, ranked by factors including mass, time to orbit, and orbit accuracy. “