Tag Archives: Virgin Orbit

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.
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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 gets $9.5 million from UK space agency

The space agency of the United Kingdom yesterday awarded $9.5 million to the smallsat rocket company Virgin Orbit

ccording to the statement, the funds will be used “to develop launch operations support systems and manufacture them in the U.K.” in addition to conducting “mission planning, and to further ready the facility for satellite launches from Cornwall”.

This award is part of a larger funding package of $26 million (£20 million) from Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, while Virgin Orbit have also said they will contribute about $3.2 million (£2.5 million) to the Spaceport Cornwall project. The hope is that Cornwall could become a hub for European launches to space in the future.

Essentially this is an effort by the UK to bring Virgin Orbit’s launches to Cornwall spaceport. Why Virgin Orbit has got this money is puzzling however. Launched from a 747 which can take off from almost all airports, Virgin Orbit doesn’t necessarily need to launch from a spaceport. That fact is probably why the company got this “pay-off”, using somewhat more blunt words.

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 successfully completes rocket drop from 747

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today successfully completed a drop of a dummy rocket from the fuselage of its 747.

Although the rocket was “fully loaded,” as the company put it, its engines never fired—nor were they meant to. Instead, the rocket fell freely to Earth so the company could see how it performed during its first few seconds of freefall. This was the last major test for Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system, which will launch rockets from a gutted jumbo jet, known as Cosmic Girl, to boost small satellites into orbit. It’s a complicated maneuver, but it could significantly reduce the costs of getting to space.

The article says they plan their first orbital test flight in the fall. Whether today’s success and that launch can get the company back on track after OneWeb cancelled the bulk of its contract remains to be seen. If they succeed in launching to orbit this year that will make them the only operational competitor to Rocket Lab in the smallsat market, with a system that might be cheaper.

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 gets another launch agreement

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed an agreement with the European launch services provider Exolaunch to provide launches for it appears as many as 20 smallsats.

Exolaunch, a spinoff of the Technical University of Berlin formerly called ECM-Space, has arranged launches, managed missions and integrated small satellite rideshare clusters for customers in Europe and North America. Exolaunch customers include startups, universities, scientific institutions and space agencies. In 2019, Exolaunch is under contract to send more than 60 small satellites into orbit. Forty of those satellites are scheduled to fly together on a Russian Soyuz rocket this spring or summer.

It appears that this agreement covers those 20 additional satellites, but the announcement is vague, probably because Virgin Orbit has still not completed its first launch. Until it does so, many of its launch contracts will be somewhat tentative, with its customers keeping the option to withdraw.

DARPA picks three smallsat rocket companies for launch challenge

Capitalism in space: DARPA has chosen Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a third unnamed company to compete for up to $10 million in prizes in its quick launch competition.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is giving $400,000 to each of three companies chosen to compete in the “DARPA Launch Challenge” to demonstrate rapid and responsive launch of small payloads. Tucson-based Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a “stealth” startup will now have the opportunity to compete for prizes up to $10 million for successfully proving they can successfully launch twice in a row within a short timeframe from being provided mission parameters, DARPA told reporters here April 10.

First, I wonder why Rocket Lab was not picked. I suspect this is because it is already launching operational missions, and so does not need this developmental boost. Also, its rocket might not meet DARPA’s criteria. The launch systems of both Vector and Virgin Orbit are designed to allow them to quickly transport their rocket to any number of launch sites and go. Rocket Lab’s Electron appears to need a more established launchpad.

Second, I wonder what that third unnamed startup is. There are more than two dozen in development right now, but I can only think of one, Exos Aerospace, that has actually done any successful test flights, albeit suborbital. Whether its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket, being used to incrementally develop an orbital version, fits DARPA’s needs is not clear.

It could also very well be that DARPA has not actually chosen a third company, but has informed several that they can get that third slot, if they can achieve certain goals in a certain time frame. It could be that both DARPA and these companies would rather keep this private competition private. For the companies, they’d rather not advertise their failure to win it. For DARPA, the goal is to help, not hurt, the companies.

Branson seeks new capital for Virgin Galactic/Orbit

Capitalism in space: Apparently short of cash because of his cancellation of a $1 billion investment space deal with Saudi Arabia, Richard Branson has hired a finance firm to find him new capital for his two space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Sources said this weekend that Sir Richard was seeking funding that would value Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, which launches satellites for commercial customers, at a combined sum of well over $2bn (£1.55bn).

The precise amount that he is looking to raise has yet to be determined, but people close to the process suggested it would be at least $250m (£193m), representing a minority stake.

The structure of a deal could see new shareholders injecting money into either, or both, Virgin-branded space companies.

I will not be surprised if Branson gets the investment capital for Virgin Orbit. I will also not be surprised if he has trouble finding anyone willing to invest a lot in Virgin Galactic. In fact, this shortage in capital might spell the end of this fourteen year effort at building a reusable spacecraft designed to provide suborbital tourism.

Making smallsat rockets at Vector

Payload structure for Vector's Vector-R rocket

In the coming year we should see the spectacular first launches from two smallsat rocket companies, Vector and Virgin Orbit, joining Rocket Lab (which has already launched successfully three times) to form an entirely new industry of small rockets designed specifically for launching cubesat and nanosat satellites, what I call smallsats.

The image on the right shows the payload adapter fitting for Vector’s Vector-R rocket. The red and silver rectangular objects are dummy cubesat payloads. Overall, this structure, only about three feet high, will allow Vector to place as many as eight smallsats into orbit on one launch.

The picture was taken yesterday during a tour of Vector’s facilities given to me personally by Vector’s CEO, Jim Cantrell. During my previous tour of Vector back in March 2017, Cantrell had described the company’s planned test launch schedule as follows:

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County.

The first two launches occurred as promised, first in Mojave on May 3, 2017 and then in Georgia on August 3, 2017. An announcement in October 2017 set the launch of the third test first for January 2018 but that launch did not happen. In March 2018 Vector announced it planned to launch two cubesats into orbit from Alaska by the end of 2018, but this did not happen either.

Because of the delays, with no explanation, I was beginning to harbor doubts about the company’s status. Last week Cantrell gave a talk at Tucson’s Space Business Roundtable, and I went to that talk to find out what the issues were as well as attempt to find out when they did plan to launch.

Cantrell not only filled me in on the details, but generously offered to give me another personal tour of Vector’s facilities, which had grown significantly since my 2017 tour. Then, Vector employed only thirty people and was based in a small warehouse. Now it employs more than 150, and has two much larger facilities in Tucson as well as one in California (where its mission control is based).

First let me outline the company’s launch status.
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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.

Branson suspends negotiations with Saudi Arabia

Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson today announced that he is suspending negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s investment funds because of their involvement in the disappearance and possible murder of a journalist in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Branson said in a statement.

It was expected that Saudi Arabia was going to invest about a billion dollars in Branson’s space companies, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Branson has also suspended his directorship in two Saudi tourism projects.

I must wonder if what really has happened is that the Saudi’s were becoming reluctant to commit funds to Branson because of the lack of success at Virgin Galactic, and Branson is therefore providing himself cover for the failure of the negotiations by claiming it was he that pulled out, for different reasons.

At the same time, what happened to Khashoggi might justify Branson’s actions.

He had an appointment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect some documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee — a certificate showing that he was divorced from his first wife. He entered the consulate on Oct. 2 at 1:14 p.m., asking his fiancee to wait outside for him. She did. Until 2 a.m. He never emerged.

A number of news outlets, citing Turkish sources, are reporting that Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor of a Saudi newspaper, regime critic and Washington Post contributor, was murdered. The New York Times quoted sources who said that 15 Saudi agents from the security services, including one autopsy expert, entered Turkey that same day on two chartered flights. They departed that evening. The Saudis claim that Khashoggi left the consulate an hour after he arrived and have no idea what became of him. The Turks would like to send a forensic team inside, but the Saudis have refused.

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 first launch license

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has obtained its first launch license from the FAA.

They hope to fly this first orbital flight before the end of the summer. Previously they have announced launch contracts calling for commercial launches in 2019, which requires these test flights in 2018.

Either way, it appears that, as I predicted in 2016, Virgin Orbit will achieve its first operational flight ahead of Virgin Galactic, even though the latter has been in development more than twice as long.

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’s LauncherOne wins Defense launch contract

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne has won a contract to launch a Defense Department payload.

The details are vague, but the deal appears real. The article also suggests that Virgin Orbit is on schedule to complete its first launch next year.

Its carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 that was formerly a passenger airliner for Virgin Atlantic, is currently in flight tests after undergoing modifications to accommodate the launch vehicle. A pathfinder version the rocket, meanwhile, has been shipped from the company’s factory in Long Beach, California to Mojave for testing, including static fire tests of both stages.

All evidence now suggests that my prediction one year ago that this Virgin company will make its first operational flight before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, despite being in development only six years, compared to the fourteen years SpaceShipTwo has been under development.

Saudi Arabia to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit

Capitalism in space: Saudi Arabia and Virgin have signed a non-binding agreement for Saudi Arabia to invest $1 billion in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

I’m not sure what to make of this press release. The agreement is clearly called “non-binding,” which means Saudi Arabia is not obliged to provide any funds. At the same time, the deal appears to shift power and control of the two Virgin companies to the Arab country, which if successful (a big “if”) would also quickly give Saudi Arabia both a manned and smallsat launching capability.

Why they chose Virgin appears at first baffling, considering that company’s repeated inability to achieve any of its promises. It could be, however, that Richard Branson’s funds are drying up, and that he needed this deal to keep both companies afloat. Saudi Arabia thus saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

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).

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.

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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