Virgin Orbit Launch Attempt Scheduled for Jan. 10

Cosmic Girl with a fueled LauncherOne on approach to Mojave on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The U.S. Coast Guard has posted a Local Notice to Mariners (LNM) that says Virgin Orbit is planning to conduct the second flight test of its LauncherOne rocket off the coast of California on Sunday, Jan. 10.

“Virgin Orbit will conduct hazardous operations offshore of San Nicolas Island, CA from 1000-1400 PST on 10 Jan 2021. Virgin Orbit has scheduled
three backup dates for operations on 17JAN2021, 24JAN2021, and 31JAN2021 from 1000-1400 PST,” the notice said.

A modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl will take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port and carry LauncherOne to its drop zone over the Pacific Ocean.

The rocket will be carrying 10 CubeSats being launched under NASA’s  Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. NASA also provided funding for the launch itself under its Venture Class Launch Services program.

Virgin Orbit’s first launch attempt failed on May 25, 2020. LauncherOne’s first stage engine ignited after the booster was dropped, but the engine failed seconds later when a fuel line broke.

A successful launch is viewed as crucial for the company, which is looking to raise an additional $200 million from investors. Founder Richard Branson has said the company has already raised $1 billion to fund the development of the small-satellite launch vehicle.

The 10 satellites scheduled for launch on this flight include the following CubeSats:

Capital Technology University
Laurel, Maryland

A 3U CubeSat carrying out two technology demonstrations. The primary payload, TrapSat, is tackling the issue of space debris by using aerogel to capture and profile orbiting microdebris. The mission also includes the first secondary stand-alone payload for a CubeSat, the Hermes module, which demonstrates commanding via Internet as an cost-saving communications and command subsystem for gathering scientific data.

Unversity of Louisiana
Lafayette, Louisiana 

This educational mission will fly the Smartphone CubeSat Classroom, which allows anyone with a smartphone to set up a ground station with a kit. Interactive educational activities will give students the ability to interact with the CubeSat via an app on their smartphone and use their smartphone to design their own CubeSat experiments.

California Polytechnic University
San Luis Obispo, California

This 3U CubeSat is equipped with a space weather platform that will measure a number of atomic and ionic substances in the exosphere. Knowledge of the composition and the current state of activity in the exosphere can be useful in the prediction of space weather phenomena in order to forecast potential effects on satellite communications and spacecraft performance. 

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

MiTEE is a series of two CubeSat missions developing the capability to deploy a pico/femto (i.e. very small) satellite-tether system. The missions will allow students to work on a real-world, research-driven mission to assess the key dynamics and electrodynamic fundamentals of a very short tether system for flying pairs of smallsats.

Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah

A pair of two satellites, PICS is a technology demonstration of a spacecraft that can perform inspection, maintenance and assembly on another spacecraft. The two flight systems deployed simultaneously will enable the collection of image data from each other as well as the parent spacecraft. 

University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado

PolarCube is a small radiometer that will collect Earth surface and atmospheric temperature data. Its purpose is to collect brightness temperature spectra at a low cost, useful for applications like storm cell observations and the study of sea ice fractions near the poles.

University of Central Florida
Orlando, Florida

Q-PACE will facilitate long-duration microgravity experiments to study collisions in the early protoplanetary disk. The CubeSat will observe low-velocity collisions between cm-scale and smaller particles, addressing the decades-old question of how bodies grow past the meter-size barrier into planetesimals that can become planets through gravitational accretion.

Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee

RadFxSat-2 has two mission objectives: to study the effects of space radiation on a specific kind of Static Random Access Memory (SRAM) for the purpose of validating single-event error rate predictions, and to test a design for two-way amateur radio communications.

NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, California

The overall goal of TECHEDSAT is to evaluate, demonstrate, and validate two new technologies for future experiments aboard smallsats. After 60 days in orbit, the satellite will be commanded to quickly re-enter the atmosphere utilizing a new device called an Exo-Brake.