Quarterly Launch Report: US in the Lead Thanks to SpaceX

A Falcon 9 lifts off with 60 Starlink satellites on March 11, 2021. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There were 27 orbital launch attempts with 26 successes and one failure during the first quarter of 2021. The United States accounted for nearly half the total with 13 launches behind nine flights by SpaceX.

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General Atomics Awards Contract to Firefly Aerospace to Launch NASA’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols Mission

Orbital Test Bed (OTB) satellite carrying NASA’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) instrument. (Credit: General Atomics)

SAN DIEGO, February 18, 2021 (GA-EMS PR) — General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) announced today that it has awarded a contract to Firefly Aerospace Inc. to launch a GA-EMS developed Orbital Test Bed (OTB) satellite carrying NASA’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) instrument. The launch vehicle delivering the satellite to space will be Firefly’s Alpha rocket and is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2022.

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Virgin Orbit Hires New VPs of Safety, Government Operations

LONG BEACH, Calif., February 4, 2021 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company, announced today the addition of two well-respected space industry leaders to its executive team. Kirk Pysher has joined the company as its new Vice President of Mission Assurance, Quality and Safety, and Janice Starzyk as Vice President of Government Operations.

The announcement comes on the heels of Virgin Orbit’s successful orbital launch demonstration in January, when its unique air-launched LauncherOne system carried 9 small satellite missions to space in support of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services Program. Having now fully demonstrated all elements of LauncherOne, the Virgin Orbit team is turning its full attention to serving its growing manifest of customers, and as such is expanding its executive team to better serve its growing customer base.

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LauncherOne Reaches Orbit, Deploys Payloads

Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 takes off from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

UPDATE: Virgin Orbit has confirmed that the second stage fired as planned for the second time and that the payloads were deployed into the planned orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne reached orbit for the first time on Sunday with 10 CubeSats aboard, marking a major milestone for Richard Branson’s air launch operation.

The modified Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port and flew out over the Pacific Ocean where it dropped the booster. Virgin Orbit tweeted that the NewtonThree and NewtonFour engines on the first and second stages fired as planned to reach orbit.

The rocket is now coasting in orbit. The NewtonFour engine will ignite a second time to circularize the orbit before the 10 CubeSats are released. The CubeSats are aboard as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program.

NASA provided funding for the launch under its Venture Class Launch Services program, which is designed to help fund new small satellite launch vehicles.

Virgin Orbit Delays Flight Test to Sunday

Cosmic Girl performs a pitch up maneuver during a flight test on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit has delayed the flight test of its LauncherOne booster originally scheduled for Wednesday until Sunday, Jan. 17. Operations are expected to take place between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. PST (1800-2200 UTC). Your local time may vary; please adjust accordingly.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl will take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It will release LauncherOne over the Pacific Ocean west of San Nicolas Island. The rocket’s first stage will fire once the booster is clear of the aircraft.

LauncherOne’s second flight test will carry 10 CubeSats for NASA under the space agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. NASA also funded the launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.

LauncherOne’s first flight test failed on May 25, 2020. The first stage fired for about four seconds, but then quit due to a break in a propellant line.

This second flight test is seen as crucial for Virgin Orbit, which is attempting to raise an additional $200 million in investment. Founder Richard Branson has said the company has already raised $1 billion in its effort to reach orbit.

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.

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NASA’s ELaNa 20 Mission First to Fly on Virgin Orbit Launch

Virgin Orbit teammates complete a dry run of the payload encapsulation process in Aug. 2020 inside their “Nebula” payload processing facility ahead of the company’s Launch Demo 2 mission. (Credits: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)

By Danielle Sempsrott 
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

MOJAVE, Calif. — Ten NASA-sponsored CubeSats are preparing to fly on the agency’s next Educational Launch of Nanosatellites  (ELaNa) mission, making this the first payload carried by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.

With the small satellites safely secured inside the payload fairing, and the fairing mated to the rocket, Virgin Orbit is gearing up for ELaNa 20, the Launch Demo 2 flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

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Shorthanded Virgin Orbit Postpones Launch Due to COVID-19

Closeup on LauncherOne. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Orbit has postponed the second flight of its LauncherOne booster scheduled for Dec. 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced on Saturday.

“Our latest round of contact tracing Friday evening led to a new batch of precautionary quarantines,” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “Consequently, we’ve fallen below the number of staff we feel we require to prudently and safely proceed with pre-launch operations….

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Firefly Black Awarded NASA Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 Contract

WASHINGTON (Firefly Black PR) — Firefly Black, LLC is pleased to announce its selection by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the launch of Mission Two of the Venture Class Launch Service Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract. Mission Two involves launch of two CubeSat constellations to a 550 km Sun-Synchronous Orbit, separated by a minimum of 10 degrees in plane change.

“Firefly Black is pleased to have been selected by NASA for this operationally challenging mission. We applaud NASA’s commitment to the nation’s emerging small launch industrial base and look forward to supporting America’s civil space launch needs for many years,” said Leslie Kovacs, company President. “The all-private development of our Alpha launch vehicle, and the impending completion of our Space Launch Complex 2 conversion at Vandenberg AFB, are on schedule to support the maiden Firefly Alpha launch in the first quarter of 2021. The men and women of Firefly, and our supply chain partners, are excited by this partnership with NASA.”

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NASA Awards Venture Class Launch Contracts to Astra, Relativity Space & Firefly

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) has awarded multiple Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contracts to launch small satellites (SmallSats) to space, including CubeSats, microsats or nanosatellites. The three companies selected to provide these commercial launch capabilities, and the value of their firm fixed-price contracts, are:

  • Astra Space Inc. of Alameda, California: $3.9 million
  • Relativity Space Inc. of Long Beach, California: $3.0 million
  • Firefly Black LLC of Cedar Park, Texas: $9.8 million
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Original Firefly Shareholders Sue Firefly’s Markusic, Polyakov Alleging Fraud

Tom Markusic

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A group of original shareholders in the defunct Firefly Space Systems have accused co-founder and CEO Tom Markusic of fraudulently conspiring with Ukrainian billionaire Maxym Polyakov to force the rocket company into bankruptcy in 2017 and reconstitute it under a nearly identical name without giving them any stake in the new venture.

Markusic “betrayed the trust of his original co-founders and investors and committed fraud to cut them out of his aerospace company. Instead of managing the operations of the Original Firefly, a revolutionary rocket company with endless potential, Markusic schemed with…Maxym Polyakov…to rob Plaintiffs of their investments and form a new company called Firefly Aerospace, Inc. (the ‘New Firefly’),” the plaintiffs said in a lawsuit.

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NASA Sends CubeSats to Space on Rocket Lab Electron Booster

Ellectron launches NASA’s Venture Class CubeSats. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

MAHIA PENINSULA, New Zealand (NASA PR) — A series of new CubeSats now are in space, conducting a variety of scientific investigations and technology demonstrations, following launch Sunday of Rocket Lab’s first mission for NASA under a Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contract.

An Electron rocket lifted off at 1:33 a.m. EST (7:33 p.m. NZDT) from the company’s launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, marking the first time CubeSats have launched for NASA on a rocket designed specifically for small payloads.

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Rocket Lab Launches NASA CubeSats on First Ever Venture Class Launch Services Mission

Ellectron launches NASA’s Venture Class CubeSats. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

HUNTINGTON Beach Calif. (Rocket Lab PR)  – US small satellite launch company Rocket Lab has launched its third orbital mission of 2018, successfully deploying satellites to orbit for NASA. The mission, designated Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19 , took place just over a month after Rocket Lab’s last successful orbital launch, ‘It’s Business Time.’ Rocket Lab has launched a total of 24 satellites to orbit in 2018.

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10 CubeSats Ready for NASA’s First Venture Class Launch

Electron It’s Business Time lift-off (Credits: Kieran Fanning & Sam Toms)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — RNASA will enable the launch of 10 small research satellites, or CubeSats, selected through the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) for launch on Rocket Lab’s first mission for NASA. The CubeSats were built by three NASA centers, seven universities, and a middle school as part of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite XIX (ELaNa-19) mission.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — More than 250 students have been involved in the design, development and construction of the CubeSats scheduled to be flown as payloads on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. This mission will be the first launch under NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contracts, which aims to provide a dedicated launch capability for smaller payloads such as CubeSats on smaller rockets.

Rocket Lab is now targeting the ELaNa-19 launch Dec. 15 with a launch window opening at 11 p.m. EST from the company’s launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
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