Virgin Orbit Set to Launch on Dec. 22

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Orbit is planning to launch five satellites using its LauncherOne rocket on Dec. 22, according to a U.S. Coast Guard Notice to Mariners.

LauncherOne will be dropped by the Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl over the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. The launch window will last from 2-5 p.m. PST, the notice said. Backup launch dates are Dec. 23 and January 8-10 from 2:15-5 p.m.

The table below shows the payloads for the “Above the Clouds” mission.

Satellite(s)Organization(s)Purpose
PAN-A & PAN-BCornell UniversityTechnology demonstration. CubeSats will autonomously rendezvous and dock in orbit.
STORK-3SatRevolutionEarth observation. Part of SatRevolution’s constellation of spacecraft.
SteamSat-2SatRevolution, SteamJet Space SystemsTechnology demonstration. Satellite built by SatRevolution will demonstrate StreamJet’s water-fueled thrusters.
ADLER-1Spire Global, Austrian Space Forum (OeWF), Findus Venture GmbHSpace debris monitoring. The 3U CubeSat will measure the micro space debris environment in low Earth orbit.

The U.S. Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) awarded the launch to Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space as part of the Space Test Program’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). Cornell University’s PAN-A and PAN-B spacecraft are being flown as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

ADLER-1, which measures 30 x 10 x 10 cm, was a late addition to the launch manifest. Virgin Orbit received a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to include the satellite on the mission.

In a press release, Virgin Orbit stressed how quickly the satellite was developed and scheduled for launch.

Going from idea to orbit in less than one year, ADLER-1 is developed by Spire in partnership with the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) and Findus Venture GmbH and has demonstrated the speed at which satellites can be developed. ADLER-1 is also part of a growing movement to address the issue of dangerous space debris and to improve sustainability in Low Earth Orbit. The 30x10x10 cm satellite will study the micro space debris environment in Low Earth Orbit to complement the space debris models by obtaining in-situ data.

“It’s flat-out amazing!” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO. “Going from initial conversation to final selection in 20 days and from selection to integrated payload in just 36 hours, 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.”

“Partnering with Virgin Orbit for this launch allows us to continue the accelerated pace of this important project with Findus Ventures GmbH and OeWF to study the space debris environment in Low Earth Orbit so they can verify and complement space debris models even more quickly,” said Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire.

It will be the third LauncherOne flight of 2021 and the fourth overall. The air-launched booster successfully orbited payloads in January and June. LauncherOne failed on its maiden flight in May 2020 due to a broken propellant line.

Virgin Orbit has reached a deal to merge with the NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, which would allow the launch services provider to go public on Nasdaq under its own name. NextGen shareholders are set to vote on whether to approve the merger six days after the planned launch on Dec. 28.