Thursday, January 27, 2022

Virgin Orbit launches first satellite mission after SPAC merger

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This afternoon, small satellite launcher Virgin Orbit efficiently lofted seven tiny satellites into orbit round Earth, marking the third profitable mission for the Virgin Galactic spinoff firm. The payloads consisted of numerous analysis satellites for the Department of Defense, together with three small satellites from firms SatRevolution and Spire Global.

The launch comes lower than per week after Virgin Orbit’s inventory started publicly buying and selling for the first time on the New York Stock Exchange. Virgin Orbit introduced in August its plan to go public via a merger with a particular function acquisition firm, or SPAC, making it considered one of three small rocket launch firms to comply with the pattern in 2021. On Friday, January seventh, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart rang the Nasdaq opening bell, whereas the corporate put a mannequin of its major rocket, LauncherOne, on show in New York City’s Times Square.

Virgin Orbit is considered one of many rocket firms which have cropped up in the previous couple of a long time, aimed toward particularly launching small- to medium-sized satellites into orbit. However, the corporate’s method to getting these satellites into house is a bit distinctive in comparison with its rivals. Instead of launching vertically from the bottom, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is designed to take off from beneath the wing of a provider plane, a refurbished Boeing 747 known as Cosmic Girl. The airplane is supposed to take LauncherOne as much as an altitude of roughly 35,000 toes, the place the rocket is then launched. In mid-air, LauncherOne ignites its major engine and propels its payloads the remainder of the best way into Earth’s orbit.

Today’s flight, known as “Above the Clouds,” started at 4:39PM ET, when Cosmic Girl took off from a runway on the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the place Virgin Orbit has a testing facility. The airplane flew out west over the Pacific Ocean, the place LauncherOne was launched at 5:52PM ET. Flying the airplane for this mission was Virgin Orbit’s pilot, Eric Bippert. He was accompanied within the cockpit by Matthew Stannard, or Stanny, a check pilot for the Royal Air Force within the United Kingdom who has been seconded to Virgin Orbit. Stanny was the one to provoke LauncherOne’s launch from beneath Cosmic Girl’s wing.

Virgin Orbit’s launch occurred on the identical day as SpaceX’s second launch of the yr, which additionally despatched a crop of small satellites into orbit on the corporate’s Falcon 9 rocket out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX’s launch, known as Transporter-3, hoisted a whopping 105 small satellites into orbit, deploying them one after the other into house. Such a flight is sometimes called a rocket rideshare, and it’s another choice for small satellite producers to get their payloads into house. Since SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has a much bigger capability than a smaller rocket like LauncherOne, it might probably carry a bunch of small satellites directly into house, a bit like a cosmic carpool. SpaceX goals to launch at the least three devoted rocket rideshares a yr via its Smallsat Rideshare Program.

Rocket rideshares have their downsides, although. For one factor, small satellite producers typically want to attend till sufficient satellites are packed onto one rocket with the intention to launch. There are additionally some logistical points that may include launching so many satellites directly. Dedicated small launch suppliers like Virgin Orbit can tailor their missions to just some prospects and may, in idea, present a faster path to the launchpad. In reality, Virgin Orbit claims that Spire’s satellite was added comparatively final minute to right now’s flight. “In just under two weeks, we got them on board,” Tony Gingiss, Virgin Orbit’s COO, mentioned throughout a press convention forward of the launch. “Within 24 hours of signing the contract, we already had them integrated into the fairing” — the nosecone on prime of the rocket.

Of course, Virgin Orbit might want to up its launch cadence with the intention to supply a fast path to house for purchasers. So far, the corporate is averaging about six months between launches. But Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart says the corporate is focusing on six launches this yr, which might double the launch cadence. Two of these launches are presupposed to happen out of Spaceport Cornwall within the UK, established on the Cornwall Airport Newquay.

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