Note: Story updated with information about ABL Space Systems’ RS1 booster.
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
Rocket Lab’s announcement that it is developing the medium-lift Neutron rocket focused on launching satellite constellations was an inevitable consequence of SpaceX getting into the rideshare business.
During a session at the SmallSat Symposium last week, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart and Founder Richard Branson spoke about increasing the number of operating vehicles and branching off into satellite manufacturing and operations.
“What they were trying to achieve was not easy and we we’ll be able to launch on numerous 747s from different parts of the world. We want to be able to build rockets and ship out quickly to different parts of the world. We want them to be able to go in to the right orbit or any orbit anywhere in the world,” Branson said.
LONG BEACH, Calif., February 17, 2021 (Virgin Orbit PR) —Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard Branson’s satellite launch company, announced today that Tony Gingiss has joined the team as their Chief Operating Officer (COO). As the first person to hold this position, Tony will oversee day-to-day operations at Virgin Orbit’s state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Long Beach, CA. His arrival follows the successful LauncherOne mission in January and completes a sequence of enhancements to the company’s executive team as Virgin Orbit pivots to commercial operations.
Tony brings more than 30 years of aerospace experience in design, production, operations and leadership to this new role. Most recently, he served as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of OneWeb Satellites, where he led that company through design, low-rate-initial production, pilot launches, and into full production. Under his leadership, the company built a new factory and scaled to a production rate of two satellites per day — the successful realization of a fundamentally new approach to aerospace manufacturing.
LONG BEACH, Calif., February 9, 2021 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company, announced today it has signed a new launch agreement with SatRevolution, a NewSpace satellite company headquartered in Wroclaw, Poland. For this contract, Virgin Orbit will launch a pair of small satellites, STORK-4 and STORK-5 (MARTA), later this year onboard its LauncherOne rocket.
Based on the state-of-the-art UniBus 3U CubeSat platform developed by SatRevolution, STORK-4 and MARTA are the first optical satellites to be launched as part of the company’s 14-satellite STORK constellation. Once deployed, STORK-4 and MARTA will collect multispectral medium-resolution imagery and data for agricultural and energy customers in the US, in Poland, and abroad. The mission will also feature a reduced timeline integration of the STORK-4 and MARTA satellites as part of a critical first step in demonstrating a responsive launch service. Future LauncherOne missions will be designed to offer a rapid launch capability, with the companies working closely to ensure that quick call-up capabilities are readily available.
NASA’s TechEdSat series of technology demonstrations aims to bring small payloads back to Earth or to the surface of Mars – while pushing the state of the art in a variety of CubeSat technologies and experiments.
MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (NASA PR) — TechEdSat is a series of collaborative projects and missions that pairs college and university students with NASA researchers to evaluate new technologies for use in small satellites, or CubeSats. Students do the hands-on work – designing, building, and testing CubeSat spacecraft systems and analyzing the results – for each flight mission, under mentorship of engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.
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.
LONG BEACH, Calif., January 25, 2021 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company, announced today that it has been selected by the Dutch space engineering company Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS) to launch the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s (RNLAF) first ever satellite, a 6U CubeSat called BRIK-II.
Designed and integrated by ISIS, BRIK-II will serve as a testbed for various communications experiments and demonstrate how nanosatellites can provide a meaningful contribution to military operations. The mission represents a significant step forward for the Dutch Ministry of Defense’s efforts to develop their first space capabilities, with a particular emphasis on responsive launch.
MOJAVE, Calif., January 17, 2021 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company, confirmed that its LauncherOne rocket reached space during the company’s second launch demonstration today, successfully deploying 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).
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.
The upcoming holiday weekend (Martin Luther King Day on Monday) will see NASA conduct the long awaited Green Run hot fire of its Space Launch System rocket core and orbital launches by Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and SpaceX involving 71 satellites.
Saturday, January 16
Launch Vehicle: Rocket Lab Electron Mission Name: “Another One Leaves the Crust” Payload: OHB Group micro communications satellites Launch Time: 2:41 EST (0741 UTC) Launch Site: Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand Webcast: www.rocketlabusa.com (begins 15 minutes prior to launch)
UPDATE: Launch scrubbed as engineers examine sensor data. They have a 10-day launch window.
Hot Fire: Space Launch System Core Test Window: 5-7 p.m. EST (2200–0000 UTC) Test Site: Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. Webcast:www.nasa.gov (begins at 4:20 p.m. EST/2120 UTC) Post-test Briefing: Approximately two hours after test completion on NASA website
Sunday, January 17
Launch Vehicle: Virgin Orbit LauncherOne/Cosmic Girl Mission Name: NASA ELaNa-20 mission Payloads: 10 CubeSats Launch Window: 1:00-5:00 p.m. EST (1800-2200 UMT) Launch Sites: Mojave Air and Space Port, California (Cosmic Girl Boeing 747), Pacific Ocean (LauncherOne)
Monday, January 18
Launch Vehicle: SpaceX Falcon 9 Mission Name: Starlink V1.0-L16 Payloads: 60 Starlink broadband satellites Launch Time: 8:45 a.m. EST (1345 UTC) Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Webcast:www.spacex.com (begins 15 minutes before launch)
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 has rescheduled the second flight of LauncherOne booster for Wednesday, Jan. 13. The flight was originally scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 10. The operation is set to take place from 7-10 a.m. PST (1500-1800 UTC). As always, your local time may vary. Please adjust accordingly.
The modified Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl will take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It will fly out over the Pacific Ocean and release LauncherOne to the west of San Nicolas Island. The booster, carrying 10 CubeSats for NASA, will ignite its first stage and head to space.
Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to fly LauncherOne ended in failure on May 25, 2020. The rocket’s first stage cut off about four seconds after ignition after a fuel line broke. The booster was carrying a mass simulator.
Meanwhile, sister company Virgin Galactic says it has found the cause of the failure that resulted in an in-flight abort of its SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity in December. The suborbital space plane’s engine shut off after the vehicle’s computer lost contact with it.
The two pilots aboard safely glided the ship back to a landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico. VSS Unity was carrying a load of microgravity experiments for NASA.
Virgin Galactic did not say exactly what exactly caused the computer to lose contact with the engine. Nor did the company set a date for a repeat flight test.
Virgin Galactic has said it plans three additional flight tests of VSS Unity before beginning commercial suborbital tourism flights sometime later this year.