Virgin Orbit Launches 7 Smallsats into Orbit

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Orbit successfully launched seven small satellite into Earth orbit off the coast of California on Wednesday, completing the company’s second successful mission and raising the number of spacecraft Richard Branson’s launch company has orbited to 17.

The Tubular Bells: Part One mission included three CubeSats from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s first satellite, and two STORK optical satellites for SatRevolution of Poland.

The LauncherOne booster that carried the satellites was dropped over the Pacific Ocean by Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl airliner. The flight originated from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Virgin Galactic officials said deployment of the seven satellite went as planned. It was the second success for LauncherOne following a flight in January during which 10 satellites were launched under a NASA education program. The rocket failed on its maiden flight in May 2020.

The three U.S. military satellites were part of the DoD Space Test Program’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI), whose goal is to reduce the time needed to launch payloads. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) awarded the contract to Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space, which handles launches for U.S. and allied militaries and national security agencies.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force’s BRIK II nanosatellite will provide the Dutch military with intelligence data relating to navigation, communication and Earth observation. The spacecraft was built and integrated by Innovative Solutions in Space with contributions from the University of Oslo, the Delft University of Technology, and the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre.

SatRevolution’s STORK-4 and STORK-5 spacecraft are part of a 14-satellite constellation designed to provide Earth observation data. The Polish company has plans to become the world’s largest operator of Earth observation satellites by launching 1,500 spacecraft by 2026, according to SatRevolution’s website.

SatRevolution and Virgin Orbit announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday under to cooperate on launching the constellations and other activities.

“Per the MOU, SatRevolution has selected Virgin Orbit to support multiple additional missions to space each year through 2026, as the company works to develop and populate its “constellation of constellations,” including its STORK constellation and other potential constellations for Internet of Things (IOT) and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) applications,” Virgin Orbit said in a press release.

“Further expanding the two companies’ strategic partnership, Virgin Orbit and SatRevolution will also explore ways to streamline the broader space value chain for small satellites. These joint offerings could include hosted payload services on LauncherOne, turnkey solutions for rapid deployment of space services, and more,” the announcement said.

“Additionally, Virgin Orbit and SatRevolution will actively seek ways to further cultivate Poland’s rapidly growing space industry, such as pursuing new opportunities for in-country launch and mission services. Virgin Orbit and SatRevolution will also continue to collaborate alongside several of Poland’s top research universities as part of the Polish Mission to Mars consortium, which is working to develop a series of missions to the Red Planet,” Virgin Orbit added.