Virgin Orbit gets another smallsat launch contract


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Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed another launch contract, this time to launch nanosats for a company that provides services to the airline industry.

The flight, which is bound for a low-inclination orbit, is scheduled to occur in early 2019. GomSpace will use the launch to further build out a constellation of small satellites that will use Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal monitoring to track civilian aircraft and ocean-going vessels. This satellite constellation will provide continuous monitoring between 37 degrees North and 37 degrees South, helping provide global situational awareness for air-traffic controllers and shipping companies, and aiding in the identification and location of wayward or missing planes and ships.

The satellites slated for flight on LauncherOne are based closely on the flight-proven hardware used in the successful GOMX-1 and GOMX-3 missions, and will be designed, manufactured, and commissioned by GomSpace. The constellation will be operated by GomSpace’s Mauritius-based customer, Aerial & Maritime Ltd., once in orbit.

This appears to be the fifth launch contract that Virgin Orbit has signed, all with different companies. The recent stories have all suggested commercial launches will begin in 2019. I wonder, considering the company has yet to test fly LauncherOne, its rocket, even once.

There could be many reasons the company is getting so many contracts at this time. They could be offering great deals, with no commitment. They could be farther along in testing than the public knows. They could be fooling the satellite companies (though I doubt this because of the number of companies now signed on). Their other partners, some quite large and powerful, might be exercising clout to get these small smallsat companies to announce a launch contract in order to improve Virgin Orbit’s footprint in the market.

Regardless, we shall find out soon. To start commercial operations by early 2019 they must do some initial flight tests of LauncherOne this year. Time is running out for them to meet this schedule.

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