Tag Archives: LauncherOne

Virgin Orbit performs more flight tests of 747

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has completed a series of flight tests of the 747 airplane that will be used to launch its LauncherOne smallsat rocket.

The flights of the company’s Boeing 747 aircraft, nicknamed “Cosmic Girl,” were the first since the company installed a pylon on the plane’s left wing that will be used to carry the LauncherOne rocket on future flights of the air-launch system.

The company disclosed few details about the test flights, but flight tracking services such as Flightradar24 list three flights of the aircraft in recent days, most recently Aug. 27, taking off from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. The flights ranged in duration from one and a half to three and a half hours in airspace over the Mojave Desert and over the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

The company appears to be making progress, though its also appears that their promised first rocket flights are not happening this summer, as previously announced.

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Virgin Orbit gets another smallsat launch contract

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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Virgin Orbit wins launch contract

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today announced it has signed a contract with Cloud Constellation to launch the first dozen satellites in their SpaceBelt constellation.

The initial deployment of the SpaceBelt network will be powered by a dozen ~400 kilogram satellites placed into low inclination orbits. Taking full advantage of LauncherOne as a dedicated launch service for small satellites and as a uniquely flexible service enabled by air-launch, the SpaceBelt constellation will be deployed using single-manifested launches occurring in rapid sequence. The initial launch is expected to occur as early as 2019.

This definitely puts pressure on Virgin Orbit to produce its first launches as promised.

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Virgin Orbit gets another launch contract

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has gained another launch contract, this time from an Italian smallsat company.

Italian small satellite builder Sitael has signed Virgin Orbit to send a technology demonstration satellite into low-Earth orbit next year. Sitael’s µHETsat, a demonstrator for a new electric propulsion system built with the European and Italian space agencies, will fly on LauncherOne “mid-next year,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit Chief Executive, told SpaceNews Aug. 11.

Virgin Orbit is preparing to begin commercial services with LauncherOne, its air-launched small satellite orbital vehicle, in 2018. Other customers for the launch system, which can carry 500 kilograms to LEO, include NASA, OneWeb, and Sky and Space Global.

This story further strengthens my prediction that LauncherOne (in development for 5 years) will fly in space long before SpaceShipTwo (in development for 13 years).

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Virgin Orbit’s launch jumbo jet arrives at company’s base in California

Capitalism in space: The modified jumbo jet that Virgin Orbit is going to use as the first stage of its LauncherOne rocket, being designed to put smallsats into orbit, arrived yesterday in Long Beach to put it close to the company’s base of operations.

While some of this story is the typical hype we all should expect — and question — from a company run by Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit looks more like the real thing. Last year it was separated from Virgin Galactic, the company that has been promising and failing to fly tourists on suborbital flights now for more than a decade. I suspect this happened because the LauncherOne group did not want to be saddled any longer with the failures of the SpaceShipTwo group.

I have been predicting that LauncherOne will reach space before SpaceShipTwo, and this story only adds weight to that prediction. They have real satellite contracts, and expect their first launch to occur in 2018. While that schedule might not hold, I suspect it will not be far wrong.

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The first 3 of a 200 nanosat constellation delivered for launch

Capitalism in space: Sky and Space Global (SAS) has delivered the first three nanosats — of a planned 200 nanosat constellation — to India for launch.

The first three nanosats are to be launched by India on its PSLV rocket, but SAS has contracted Virgin Orbit to use its LauncherOne to put the next 197 up. They had made this first announcement last summer, saying the first three would launch in the second quarter of 2017. It appears that they are holding to that schedule.

They also said that LauncherOne would begin launching the other 197 satellites in 2018. For this I remain far more skeptical, since the track record at Virgin in getting its spacecraft off the ground on schedule has not been good.

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Virgin Galactic spins off LauncherOne into its own division

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic this week spun off its LauncherOne smallsat orbital rocket to form a new company called Virgin Orbit.

This split highlights the competition that actually existed within Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo remains a very questionable design. Rather than have its problems suck the profits from LauncherOne, which has contracts and I firmly believe will fly first, the Virgin corporation has pulled it from Virgin Galactic so that the two rockets can succeed or fail on their own. In the end, I suspect now that Virgin Galactic will die and Virgin Orbit will succeed.

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Testing of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne first stage engine

The competition heats up: This week Virgin Galactic’s successfully completed a long duration static fire test of the first stage engine of its LauncherOne smallsat rocket.

I predict that LauncherOne will fly its first commercial flight before Unity, the company’s second SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, and it will do it multiple times. In fact, right now I firmly believe that Unity is never going to reach suborbital space, as they have designed it for an engine that simply doesn’t work, and can’t figure out how to redesign it to solve the problem.

LauncherOne meanwhile has at least one launch contract, and is being designed with a workable engine, right from the start.

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Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne signs another customer

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic on Monday announced that it has signed a four-launch contract with Sky and Space Global, using its LauncherOne smallsat air-launched rocket.

They hope to launch by 2018. I’ll make a prediction: LaunchOne will complete its first commercial launch before SpaceShipOne.

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Virgin Galactic gets another launch contract

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic has signed a launch contract with new communications satellite company Sky and Space Global to use LauncherOne to put 200 nanosats into orbit in 2018.

This contract suggests that Virgin Galactic might be making good progress on LauncherOne. Or it might mean that Sky and Space has some commitments that forced it to pick Virgin Galactic over other smallsat launch companies that appear to be farther along in development. Either way, the stock market looked at this deal and, as noted in the article above, sold off enough Sky and Space stock for its value to drop.

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The commerical battle over U.S. surplus ICBM’s

Link here. The article provides a good summary of the conflict between Orbital ATK and Virgin Galactic over the Defense Department’s possible sale of surplus ICBM’s for commercial use.

While Orbital has been lobbying to get Congress to lift the ban on the Pentagon selling its surplus rockets to the private sector, Virgin Galactic has been harnessing the industry lobbying arm to convince Congress to keep the ban. They fear that if the missiles become available, their as yet unflown LauncherOne will not be able to compete.

I find it very revealing that Virgin Galactic wants to use regulation to hinder their competitors. To me, this is another sign that they are not very competitive or competent in actual rocket building. Rather than build and launch their rocket at a competitive price, they want to stifle an opportunity to lower launch costs.

A hearing on this issue is taking place today. Stay tuned.

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OneWeb to set up operations in Florida

The competition heats up: The head of OneWeb confirmed today that his company is going to establish its base of operations in Florida.

The founder of OneWeb, Greg Wyler, confirmed to the Orlando Sentinel that his company is moving to Kennedy Space Center. Wyler plans to announce more details Tuesday morning in a news conference with Gov. Rick Scott, who will explain $20 million in state incentive dollars for the company. “It’s pretty exciting to see that Florida will be the base for a new satellite network that will extend high-speed access to 54 percent of the globe,” Wyler said in a phone interview.

OneWeb already has $500 million in funding to launch the new satellites, designed to boost internet access globally. It also has contracts with Virgin Galactic and French company Arianespace for launches. The company plans to hire at least 250 people.

The important part of this story for Florida is that OneWeb will be building its satellites there. Whether any are ever launched from Florida will depend on Virgin Galactic ever getting off the ground. Otherwise, most of these satellites will launch from French Guiana.

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Smallsat company searches for launch services

The competition heats up: Terra Bella, formally known as Skybox Imaging, hopes to have as many as 21 satellites in orbit by the end of 2017.

Space Systems Loral (SSL) is Terra Bella’s manufacturing partner for the SkySat satellites, building 19 SkySat Cs — one prototype and 18 final versions. Joe Rothenberg, director of Skybox engineering and operations at Google, told Via Satellite that the first SkySat C satellite is currently scheduled to launch aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on May 31. The PSLV launch is for the prototype to precede the rest of the series. The next four are then to launch on an Arianespace Vega as a rideshare this summer, followed by six more on Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rocket during the fourth quarter this year.

The Skybox C satellite only weights 265 pounds, so it is larger than a cubesat but tiny compared to most commercial satellites. The company’s problem now is that, except for Orbital ATK’s Minotaur rocket, they don’t have a launch vehicle dedicated to this size satellite. And Minotaur is probably too expensive (which is why Orbital wants the right to use surplus ICBM motors to power it). Because of this Terra Bella must launch its satellites as secondary payloads, which leaves them at the scheduling mercy of the primary payload. Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne is intended to serve this smallsat market, competing directly with Minotaur, but Terra Bella is understandably skeptical of that company’s effort.

A small piece of trivia. Rothenberg was a key NASA manager running the shuttle Hubble repair missions, one of the few NASA efforts that operated like a private company: competitive, hard-working, and demanding of success. It is entirely fitting that he has moved out of the government and into the private sector, where his skills can truly shine. It speaks well of Terra Bella that they hired him.

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Virgin Galactic awards contract

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic has awarded a contract to a Waco company to strengthen the wings of a 747 it intends to use the first stage for LauncherOne.

L-3’s work will make the left wing stout enough to support a rocket that would launch in flight from beneath the wing. This rocket would propel satellites into space for commercial and government customers. Company spokesman Lance Martin said that for confidentiality reasons he could not disclose the value of the contract or the length of the plane’s stay in Waco. He said performing work for Virgin Galactic and Branson should enhance L-3’s image, saying, “the customer speaks for itself.”

I suppose I should be excited by this, as it suggests that LauncherOne is moving forward. Considering Virgin Galactic’s history, however, I find myself sadly disinterested. I won’t get excited by this company again until they actually begin flying something.

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Virgin Galactic to use 747 for LauncherOne

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic has purchased a 747 from Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines to use as the launch vehicle for its LauncherOne rocket.

They say that WhiteKnightOne will still be used for suborbital flights, but that they need the 747 for the orbital missions of LauncherOne. They also say that test flights will begin in 2017. We shall see.

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Virgin Galactic tests new rocket engine

The competition heats up? Virgin Galactic has released video of a test burn of a new engine designed to work with its LauncherOne rocket.

I put a question mark above because I have become very skeptical of any press announcements out of Virgin Galactic. They might have made progress on this new engine, and it also appears that they are doing engine work first for developing LauncherOne, a wise plan. However, their track record with SpaceShipTwo makes me doubtful about their ability to follow through. They need to produce to make me a believer once again.

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Virgin Galactic announces changes to LauncherOne

Though this BBC news article is really nothing more than a propaganda piece for Virgin Galactic, the announcement it describes does confirm what has been suspected by space experts for months, that the company is reconfiguring LauncherOne to be more powerful and to launch on a bigger airplane, not WhiteKnightTwo.

In reading the quotes in this article from the various Virgin Galactic officials, I come away feeling even less confident of this company’s ability to get this rocket off the ground. To me, they sound like they are improvising wildly as they go, have no clear long term plan, and thus will have significant trouble settling on a final design early enough so that they will be able to build it intelligently.

I hope I am wrong. The report does suggest however that their investment in WhiteKnightTwo is increasingly appearing to be a waste. They won’t use it for LauncherOne, and their effort to launch SpaceShipTwo with it appears to be slowly vanishing.

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OneWeb awards major launch contracts

The competition heats up: OneWeb today announced it had raised a half billion dollars in investment capital, and has also awarded two major launch contracts, one to the Arianespace/Russian Soyuz partnership and the other to Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne.

The Soyuz gets 21 launches while LauncherOne gets 39. For Virgin Galactic this contract might save the company, as their effort to fly tourists on SpaceShipOne has badly stalled. The effort to build LauncherOne, however, seems to be gaining steam.

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Test flight of rail-guided launcher delayed to October

The competition heats up: The first test flight of a rail-guided military small satellite launcher has been delayed until October 2015.

“Launch delays of the new launch system were driven primarily by technical development challenges on the first stage motor including design and delivery of the rocket motor case and the integrated rocket motor,” Anttonen said in a response to written questions from Spaceflight Now. “This motor is now complete along with the rest of the launch vehicle, and the launch is on hold pending an opening in the range schedule,” Anttonen said.

The launch system is designed to provide launch capability for small satellites like cubesats, with a launch cost of $12 to $15 million. If successful, it will be a direct competitor to Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, except that it appears it might be operational first.

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Virgin Galactic says LauncherOne will make its first flight in 2016

The competition heats up: The CEO of Virgin Galactic, George Whitesides, revealed at a satellite conference that they are on schedule for LauncherOne to make its first flight before the end of 2016.

The company recently started hot-fire tests of an engine called Newton 3 developed by Virgin Galactic for the first stage of LauncherOne, Whitesides said. That engine, capable of generating 265,000 to 335,000 newtons of thrust, uses liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants. “We’re now to the point where we’re very confident that we can build a very affordable rocket,” Whitesides said. After his speech, he said the company was on schedule to begin flights by the end of 2016, with even initial test flights likely carrying some satellites.

That it is Whitesides and not Richard Branson saying this makes me more confident that it is true, though I remain very skeptical of any promise made by anyone these days at Virgin Galactic. However, the impression from this article confirms an earlier impression I have had, that the company is beginning to shift its resources away from suborbital tourism with SpaceShipTwo and towards orbital launch services with LauncherOne. Branson had announced LauncherOne as a concept in 2012, but only recently have we begin to hear of any actual work on it.

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Virgin Galactic opens facility for developing LauncherOne

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic announced today the establishment of a new facility to design and build the company’s LauncherOne rocket, aimed at putting into orbit very small cubesats at a very low price.

LauncherOne is an air-launch system for satellites weighing up to 225 kilograms. The system will use the same aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, as the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, but replaces SpaceShipTwo with a two-stage launch vehicle using engines fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene.

At the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 4, William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects for Virgin Galactic, said the company has already tested engines and other “core infrastructure” of LauncherOne. “We are a fairly vertically-integrated team,” he said. “We really do control a lot of the production in house.”

As the article notes, Virgin Galactic is investing in OneWeb, which hopes to launch a constellation of 650 cubesats to provide broadband communications worldwide. It is likely that a partnership between the two companies exists to put many of those cubesats into orbit with LauncherOne.

This announcement also suggests to me that Virgin Galactic is beginning to shift its gaze from suborbital space tourism to orbital launch services, and in doing so is looking for new ways to make its investment in WhiteKnightTwo pay off.

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From Virgin Galactic come two announcements today

The competition heats up: From Virgin Galactic come two announcements today:

The second is really the big news, especially as it appears they already have some customers.

LauncherOne will be a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (225 kilograms) to orbit for prices below $10 million. The rocket will be launched from Virgin Galactic’s proven WhiteKnightTwo, the uniquely capable aircraft also designed to carry SpaceShipTwo aloft to begin her suborbital missions. Thanks to the extreme flexibility of air launch, Virgin Galactic’s customers will enjoy reduced infrastructure costs in addition to the wide range of possible launch locations tailored to individual mission requirements and weather conditions. Branson and other senior executives announced that work has already begun on the vehicle.

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