UK awards launch license to Cornwall airport

After several months delay, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the United Kingdom yesterday issued a license to a Cornwall airport, dubbed Spaceport Cornwall, allowing Virgin Orbit to begin final preparations for the first orbital launch from within the British Isles.

The red tape however is not done.

The licence means that Virgin Orbit, which is behind the launch (named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones song), is clear to begin to carry out mission-readiness tasks. But further licences are needed relating to this specific mission before blast-off can happen.

Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “To be the first spaceport in the UK with a licence to operate is a historic moment. Cornwall is now ready to open up the use of space for good.” She added: “The CAA continues to work on several licence applications, including being in very advanced stages with Virgin Orbit on its applications for launch and range licences, as well as the satellite operators, ahead of a proposed first UK launch.

I am reminded of the meme showing a crowd of officials surrounding one ditch digger, with the only one doing any real work that digger. It appears right now that the bureaucrats in the CAA might outnumber the staffing at both Virgin Orbit and Cornwall, and all they have to do is issue a piece of paper.

Virgin Orbit gets UK marine license for its Cornwall launch

Virgin Orbit has been issued its marine license from the United Kingdom for its planned October 29, 2022 launch from Cornwall, the first such orbital launch from the British Isles.

Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of one launch in 2022 and approximately two launches per year over the next 8 years (January 2023-December 2030).

The licence issued by MMO covers the 2022 launch, the first of its kind in the UK. As there is material to be deposited into the sea that will be loaded in the UK, the activity requires a marine licence from MMO, as required by The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The ever-growing reach of government bureaucracy is worldwide. Though Virgin Orbit’s airplane, carrying the LauncherOne rocket and its seven smallsats, is taking off from Cornwall, the release of that rocket will not occur until it is over the Atlantic, with the expendable first stage falling into the ocean west of Portugal. Yet somehow the company must get permission of these UK bureaucrats — as well as American ones — to fly.

Virgin Orbit puts seven Space Force smallsats in orbit

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit last night successfully launched seven smallsats for the Space Force, using its Cosmic Girl 747 carrier plane and its LauncherOne rocket.

This was the company’s first night time launch, and its second in 2022. The leader board for the 2022 launch race remains the same:

27 SpaceX
21 China
8 Russia
4 Rocket Lab
4 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 39 to 21 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 39 to 35.

Virgin Orbit signs deal to launch from Brazil

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit yesterday announced that it has signed an agreement with the Brazil Space Agency (AEB) to establish facilities and conduct launches from that nation’s long unused Alcântara spaceport.

The license is granted to Virgin Orbit Brasil Ltda. (VOBRA), a newly formed and wholly owned Brazilian subsidiary dedicated to bringing the LauncherOne air-launch rocket system to the Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, CLA).

The formation of the VOBRA entity for dedicated Brazilian space activities is designed to bring an important new capability to the country and economic value to the region. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, which uses a customized 747 aircraft, Cosmic Girl, as its flying and fully reusable launch pad, will conduct launches from the existing airbase at the Brazilian site, flying hundreds of miles before releasing the rocket directly above the equator — a global sweet spot — or at other optimal locations identified for each individual mission.

Being able to launch smallsats from the equator gives Virgin Orbit the ability to place those satellites in any orbit around the Earth for far less fuel, an advantage not available to spaceports at higher latitudes.

Virgin Orbit to expand its fleet of 747s used with its LauncherOne rocket

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed a deal with L3 Harris Technologies to buy two more 747s airplanes to airlift its LauncherOne rocket during launches.

L3Harris will modify one of the newly acquired aircrafts to serve as an additional airborne launch pad for Virgin Orbit’s small satellite launch service, with delivery expected in 2023. L3Harris will also overhaul the platform with a new cargo configuration, which is expected to allow Virgin Orbit to deliver its rockets and ground support equipment in the same aircraft that will launch from foreign spaceports.

The companies previously collaborated to produce Virgin Orbit’s flagship aircraft “Cosmic Girl,” the first customized 747-400 aircraft to carry and deploy payloads to Low Earth Orbit under Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne program.

This deal once completed will give Virgin Orbit a fleet of three 747s for launching its rocket. The deal also suggests the company now has enough launch business to justify this expansion.

OneWeb and Arianespace scramble to find a rocket to launch satellites

Capitalism in space: With the cancellation of the last six Soyuz-2 launches for OneWeb and Arianespace due to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the two companies are struggling to find an alternative rocket to launch the remaining 216 satellites that would complete OneWeb’s satellite constellation.

OneWeb has already paid Arianespace for the launches, so the responsibility to get the satellites in orbit is at present Arianespace’s. The problem is that its flight manifest for both the Ariane-5 (being retired) and the new Ariane-6 rocket are presently full.

Going to another rocket provider is problematic, even if a deal could be negotiated. The flight manifest for ULA’s Atlas-5 and Vulcan rockets is also filled. Though SpaceX’s Falcon 9 could probably launch the satellites, that company’s Starlink satellite constellation is in direct competition with OneWeb, which makes it unlikely the two companies could make a deal.

There have been negotiations with India to use its rockets, but it is unclear at present whether this will work.

One other option is to buy a lot of launches from the smallsat rockets of Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbiter, and Astra. This will likely cost more because more launches will be required, and that would required a complex negotiation between all parties.

Virgin Orbit successfully launches seven satellites

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today successfully launched seven smallsats into orbit using its LauncherOne rocket released from a 747.

The link takes you to the Virgin Orbit live stream, which has now ended but can be replayed. The upper stage is presently coasting to its apogee where it will fire again to circularize the orbit for satellite deployment.

This was Virgin Orbit’s third successful launch, and second commercial launch.

The 2022 launch race:

2 SpaceX
1 Virgin Orbit

No one else as yet launched this year.

Virgin Orbit signs deal with Japanese company to launch satellites in Japan

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed a non-binding agreement with the Japanese airline company All Nippon Airways (ANA) to launch twenty times from a runway in Japan.

Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding that Virgin Orbit announced Nov. 4, ANA and several partners will fund the manufacturing of mobile ground support equipment for the LauncherOne system that will fly from a pre-existing runway. ANA would also “lead the effort to provide funds and support for [the 20 envisioned] orbital missions,” Virgin Orbit said.

Pending regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan, Oita could be ready for launch missions by the end of 2022, Virgin Orbit said.

This is the second airport in Asia that Virgin Orbit is planning to launch from, with the first in Guam.

Russians launch Progress freighter; Virgin Orbit launches seven commercial satellites

This morning two launches occurred. First the Russians successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS, using their Soyuz-2 rocket.

Second, Virgin Orbit successfully completed its second orbital launch with its air-launched LauncherOne rocket, which was its first operational commercial launch, placing seven smallsats into orbit for three customers. This was also its second launch in 2021.

If all goes as planned, SpaceX will complete a third launch today also, placing more than 80 smallsats in orbit with its Falcon 9 rocket. Until then, however, the leaders in the 2021 launch race are as follows:

19 SpaceX
18 China
10 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 28-18 in the national rankings.

Virgin Orbit signs deal with Brazil to launch from that country

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit and the Brazilian Space Agency have signed an agreement to allow the company to launch satellites from one of its facilities.

Launches would occur from the Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, CLA) on Brazil’s northern coast, located just two degrees south of the equator. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, which uses a customized 747 aircraft as its flying launch pad and fully reusable first stage, could conduct launches from the existing airbase at the site, flying hundreds of miles before releasing the rocket directly above the equator or at other locations optimized for each individual mission. The approach enables Alcântara to become one of the only continental spaceports in the world capable of reaching any orbital inclination.

This is an excellent deal for both. Brazil gets some commercial space business, and Virgin Orbit’s 747 will no longer have to fly long distances to get to an equator launch point.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully reaches orbit

Capitalism in space: After eight years of development, Virgin Orbit has finally used its LauncherOne air-launched rocket to successfully put ten satellites into orbit.

After an eight month stand down to resolve issues revealed during the first mission of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, the company made their second orbital launch attempt on Sunday, January 17. The air-launched rocket successfully carried ten CubeSats to their target orbit for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

This makes Virgin Orbit the second smallsat rocket company to achieve orbit, following Rocket Lab. They have beat out a large number of startups, and are now well positioned to gain some of the market share in this new component of the launch market.

They have also made true my September 2016 prediction that Virgin Orbit would complete its first commercial launch before Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital commercial flight, even though Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo began development eight years earlier.

As for the 2021 launch race, right now only SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have launched in 2021. They are tied for the lead, and also combine to put the U.S. ahead 2 to nothing over everyone else.

Next Virgin Orbit LauncherOne test flight set for late December

Capitalism in space: According to Coast Guard notices, the next Virgin Orbit attempt to put its new LauncherOne rocket into orbit should occur sometime between December 18-21.

A Nov. 24 “Local Notice to Mariners” by the U.S. Coast Guard stated that Virgin Orbit “will conduct hazardous operations” offshore from San Nicolas Island, California, between Dec. 18 and 21. Those operations will take place during a four-hour window that opens at 1 p.m. Eastern.

The notice does not explicitly state that a launch will take place, but Virgin Orbit used the same language in a Coast Guard notice for its first orbital launch attempt in May. That earlier notice, which also cited “hazardous operations,” had the same four-hour window and location for the operations.

The company has not officially announced the launch date, but it has said it would fly this mission before the end of this year.

The article also notes that another smallsat launch startup, Astra, has announced its next launch attempt will take place during a 12-day launch window starting December 7th.

Break in fuel line caused LauncherOne failure

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has determined that a break in the oxygen feed line in its LauncherOne rocket caused the failure during its first orbital test flight in late May.

Speaking at a webinar organized by the Space Generation Advisory Council, an organization for young space industry professionals, Dan Hart said the demonstration mission for the LauncherOne rocket May 25 went well until several seconds after the ignition of the NewtonThree engine that powers the rocket’s first stage. “We had a component break in our engine system. It was a high-pressure feed line,” he said. Liquid oxygen “stopped going into the engine and our flight was terminated.”

The company has performed an investigation and identified what needs to be fixed in the engine to strengthen the components that failed. A second LauncherOne rocket is in final integration right now and will be leaving the factory in the next few weeks while modifications to the engine continue. “We’ll be targeting our next flight before the end of the year,” Hart said.

They need to meet that schedule, as in the past few years they have consistently failed to fly when promised.

Virgin Orbit provides update on LauncherOne failure

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has posted a detailed update on the failure of its LauncherOne rocket on its first launch on May 25.

About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission. We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we’ve already begun. With the engine extinguished, the vehicle was no longer able to maintain controlled flight — but the rocket did not explode. It stayed within the predicted downrange corridors of our projections and our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license as the vehicle fell to the ocean, posing no risk to public safety, no danger our aircrew or aircraft, and no significant environmental impact.

They note that the rocket’s release and engine ignition went as planned, which is for them positive news. They say they their next rocket is being prepared for launch, but do not say when.

I have embedded their video report of the flight below the fold. It does include video of the rocket’s release, ignition, and shut down, but cuts off at that point.
» Read more

LauncherOne flight terminates early

Capitalism in space: The first demo flight of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket ended almost immediately after the rocket made a clean separation from its 747 first stage.

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

No one was hurt in the failure, but no word yet on what happened.

They had warned that this first test flight might not reach orbit. Nor should anyone be surprised, as first flights of rockets often fail. Nonetheless, this failure will hurt the company effort to gain launch contracts.

LauncherOne first launch set for May 24

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has announced that it will attempt the first orbital launch of its LauncherOne rocket this coming Sunday, May 24.

The company is targeting Sunday (May 24) for its Launch Demo mission, with a backup opportunity on Monday (May 25). The four-hour window will open each day at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), Virgin Orbit representatives announced today (May 20).

Launch Demo will be a huge milestone for Virgin Orbit, which has been developing its air-launch system for five years. That system involves a modified Boeing 747 jet called Cosmic Girl and a 70-foot-long (21 meters) rocket known as LauncherOne, which is capable of delivering about 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms) to a variety of destinations in low Earth orbit.

If the launch succeeds, than Virgin Orbit will stand ready to begin commercial launches later this year.

Virgin Orbit completes capture-carry test of LauncherOne

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit yesterday completed the first capture-carry test of LauncherOne with it attached to the company’s 747 loaded with cryogenic materials.

In previous flight tests, the booster’s tanks were filled with water, which is much warmer than LOX.

For this cryogenic test, Virgin Orbit substituted liquid nitrogen for the LOX as a safety precaution. “So, for this end-to-end rehearsal, we’ll have liquid nitrogen — which is very similar in temperature to liquid oxygen, but which would pose less of a risk in case anything were to go wrong despite all of our planning — in our LOX tanks for both stages,” Virgin Orbit wrote in a mission update.

They say this was their last test prior to LauncherOne’s maiden flight. They have not yet set a date for that flight.

This maiden flight was first supposed to happen in 2018, but in that year development of this rocket slowed to a snail’s pace, probably because they had lost a major launch contract.

The contract award only two days ago from the Space Force will likely reinvigorate Virgin Orbit.

My 2016 prediction that Virgin Orbit would make its first operational flight before Virgin Galactic, even though Virgin Galactic had been started development of SpaceShipOne more than a decade earlier, is still holding. The race now appears to be neck-in-neck, as Virgin Galactic claims it will do operational flights this year. We shall see.

First Virgin Orbit launch pending?

Capitalism in space: According to their CEO, the first launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is expected to occur in the “coming weeks.”

“We are positioned at the end of the runway in Mojave. Our rocket is married to our 747,” he said. “We’re going through launch rehearsals.”

In an interview after the panel, Hart said that the company was ready to move into operations quickly should that test launch be a success. “If we have a great day, we’re poised to go forward pretty much immediately,” he said. The next LauncherOne rocket is currently “well along” in assembly at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory.

He also admitted that as a demo test flight, that first launch could go sour, and they were prepared for that.

The development of LauncherOne slowed appreciably in the past two years. In July 2018 got their first launch license, and said they would do this launch late that year. It did not happen. Then, in November 2018 they began capture-carry flights, with the expectation they would fly this first launch in 2019. This did not happen either. Worse, in August 2019 it was revealed that the company had lost a major launch contract, the lose of which might explain the slowdown in development.

Despite this slow down, my 2016 prediction that LauncherOne will complete its first commercial flight before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, still looks good, even though SpaceShipTwo began development more than a decade before LauncherOne.

Virgin Orbit to add 3rd stage to LauncherOne for planetary missions

Capitalism in space: Even as it prepares for its first orbital demonstration flight, Virgin Orbit today announced that it is considering development of a third stage that will make the rocket capable of launching planetary cubesat missions.

John Fuller, Virgin Orbit advanced concepts director, said the company is deciding between three “highly energetic third stage” options for LauncherOne that would enable the rocket to launch up to 50 kilograms to Mars or 70 kilograms to Venus. The “Exploration 3-Stage Variant” of LauncherOne would also have the ability to launch around 100 kilograms to the moon or toward Lagrange points, he said.

“What we do is we take that third stage and bring the overall impulse of the vehicle up to a point where we can reach very high energies to launch to cis-lunar, interplanetary or even asteroid targets,” Fuller said Oct. 24 at the 70th International Astronautical Congress here.

The company however has still not flown the rocket, and that first flight is now about a year-plus behind schedule. They say they are preparing for the first orbital mission before the end of year but until it happens there is plenty of room for skepticism.

LauncherOne shipped to Mohave for launch prep

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has shipped its first LauncherOne rocket to Mohave for final tests prior to its first launch, planned for sometime this year.

Virgin Orbit didn’t give a schedule for completing those tests and performing that orbital flight. Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris Sept. 11 that he expected those final tests be completed in a matter of weeks. “It will take a handful of weeks to get through a number of wet dress rehearsals, crew training, and verification of the system,” he said. “We’ll do one flight test with that rocket and then we’ll get to orbit.” He estimated the company would be ready for launch “in the middle of this fall.”

If that first orbital test flight is successful, they hope to do their first operational commercial launch before the end of the year.

My 2016 prediction that a LauncherOne will complete its first commercial launch before SpaceShipOne, continues to look likely, even though SpaceShipOne began development more than a decade before LauncherOne..

OneWeb: LauncherOne too expensive

In asking that Virgin Orbit’s lawsuit against internet satellite manufacturer OneWeb be dismissed, OneWeb has claimed that their contract allowed for the cancellation of launches without cause, and that they have a cause anyway, which is that LauncherOne is too pricey.

In its court filing, OneWeb said the $6 million price tag for a LauncherOne mission is two to three times current market prices.

…The original contract, OneWeb claims, allowed for termination without cause, and for prior payments to apply to the termination fee. Those contract termination rules, and the fact that Virgin Orbit has yet to conduct any LauncherOne missions, invalidate Virgin Orbit’s revenue expectations, according to OneWeb. [emphasis mine]

Based on my estimate of the launch market, LauncherOne’s price is higher than others, but not by very much. I think the highlighted text is more significant. LauncherOne had announced plans to fly its first mission last summer. More than a year later that inaugural flight has still not taken place.

In the meantime, this decision by OneWeb is a boon to Russia’s space industry, especially its Soyuz rocket, as it will now get the contracts for launching the majority of OneWeb’s 648-satellite constellation.

Virgin Orbit sues OneWeb over canceled launches

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit this week filed a lawsuit against the satellite company OneWeb for its cancellation of 35 of 39 launches.

According to a complaint Virgin Orbit filed June 4 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, OneWeb quietly canceled 35 of a planned 39 launches last June, triggering a $70 million termination fee spelled out in the contract. Virgin Orbit says OneWeb still owes $46.32 million. The lawsuit was first reported by Law360.com.

The real significance of this story is the decision of OneWeb to back out of its deal with Virgin Orbit. Richard Branson is an investor in both, which is why I think Virgin Orbit got the contract originally, when they were nowhere close to flying.

The timing of OneWeb’s cancellation in June 2018 is interesting. In July 2018 Virgin Orbit announced that it had received a launch license from the FAA for a flight it hoped to do before the end of the summer. That flight never happened.

So, did OneWeb’s cancellation cause the Virgin Orbit flight schedule to stall, or did OneWeb realize in June 2018 that the schedule was unrealistic, and that it was time to get out?

Either way, the lose of this income is a serious blow for this Branson company, and probably does explain the lack of flights in the past year.

If I was to rank the American smallsat orbital rocket companies at this point, Rocket Lab leads, with Vector and Firefly tied for a distance second. I would also consider EXOS Aerospace up there among the leaders, even though they are not yet building an orbital rocket. Instead, they are flying their reusable SARGE suborbital rocket on commercial flights (the next is scheduled for June 30), and using it as a guide for developing the orbital rocket to follow. Virgin Orbit should be among these leaders, but the lose of this contract and their failure to fly as scheduled makes me want to lower them in the rankings.

Virgin Orbit completes first capture-carry flight of LauncherOne

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit yesterday completed the first capture-carry flight of LaunchOne, flying the rocket attached to the bottom of Cosmic Girl, its 747 launch vehicle.

The flight lasted 80 minutes in total, during which Virgin Orbit’s flight crew assessed the take-off, landing, and low-speed handling and performance of the integrated system.

“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col, US Air Force, Ret.). “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”

They are aiming to begin commercial flights next year, and appear on schedule. If so, they will jump ahead into the number two spot in the smallsat rocket race, behind Rocket Lab but ahead of Vector.

Virgin Orbit completes fastest taxi test of LaunchOne

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit this past weekend completed the fastest taxi test of its LaunchOne smallsat rocket airplane, with LaunchOne attached.

In a tweet posted today, Virgin Orbit said the Nov. 11 ground test revved up the plane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, to a speed beyond 110 knots (125 mph) on a runway in Victorville, Calif. That’s fast enough to simulate an aborted takeoff. “We also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto LauncherOne for the first time,” the company said.

My 2016 prediction, that Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne will reach space before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, looks increasingly likely. They had said they wanted to do their first launch by the end of the 2018 summer. Though this did not happen, their launch license [pdf] is effective through December 2019, and it appears they are moving towards that first launch within a few months.

Virgin Orbit reveals LauncherOne rocket attached to its 747 launch vehicle

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has begun fit tests of its LauncherOne rocket attached to its 747 launch vehicle.

This suggests that they are getting close to the first taxi and flight tests of this smallsat rocket, originally promised for the summer that just ended.

I am increasingly confident that my 2016 prediction that Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne will reach space before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will be correct, even though the former has been in serious development only about four years compared to the latter’s now fifteen year history of no space flights.

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.

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.

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.

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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