SpaceX, NASA astronauts aboard the Endeavour splashdown off the coast of Pensacola
SpaceX and NASA pushed the original return back to Earth for the four astronauts back due to bad weather. (Courtesy: NASA TV)
EXCLUSIVE: After two successful back-to-back launches in 2021, pre-launch preparations are underway for Virgin Orbit's third and final LauncherOne mission for the year.
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The mission, dubbed Above the Clouds, will take off from California's Mojave Air and Spaceport in December, carrying a payload of satellites from the U.S. Department of Defense and SatRevolution to an orbit of approximately 500 kilometers.
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After two successful back-to-back launches in 2021, pre-launch preparations are now underway for Virgin Orbit’s third and final LauncherOne mission for the year.
The DoD is launching several research and development satellites from multiple government agencies that are experiments in space-based communications and in-space navigation, as well as a university payload sponsored by NASA, while the Polish satellite company is launching two nanosatellites, STORK-3 and SteamSat-2.
STORK-3, which will take medium-resolution photos of the Earth for SatRevolution customers in the agricultural sector, will make up a constellation with the STORK-4 and STORK-5 Marta satellites, which LauncherOne carried to orbit in June. Meanwhile, SteamSat-2 is a technology demonstrated for U.K.-based SteamJet Space System’s innovative water-fueled thrusters for in-space propulsion.
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Virgin Orbit uses a technique called air launch, in which its 70-foot-long, 57,000-pound LauncherOne rocket is released at an altitude 35,000 feet from under the wing of a 747-400 jet aircraft, dubbed Cosmic Girl, rather than from a traditional launch pad on the ground.
After a four-second freefall, LauncherOne's first stage engine ignites, accelerating the rocket to approximately 8,000 miles per hour. From there, the second stage engine kicks in, taking LauncherOne to a maximum speed of 17,500 miles per hour.
Virgin Orbit uses a technique called air launch, in which its 70-foot-long, 57,000-pound LauncherOne rocket is released at an altitude 35,000 feet from under the wing of a 747-400 jet aircraft, dubbed Cosmic Girl, rather than from a traditional launc (Virgin Orbit)
In addition to improving the payload capacity of the rocket, the technique allows LauncherOne to fly on short notice from a wide variety of locations. LauncherOne, which costs an average of $12 million per flight or $40,000 per kilogram, can carry satellite payloads weighing between 300 and 500 kilograms.
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Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told FOX Business that the company is looking to double its LauncherOne flights in 2022, with a total of six flights planned, including its first international launch out of Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
The company recently announced a partnership with Japan's All Nippon Airways to procure 20 LauncherOne flights and create a new spaceport in the country's Oita region by the end of 2022, pending regulatory approval. In addition, Virgin announced an agreement in April to bring LauncherOne's orbital launch capabilities to Brazil for its first-ever orbital flights. Hart added that the company is in discussions in Australia and half a dozen other countries around the world for future partnerships.
"Space is becoming more and more of a global activity where countries, communities and companies that never thought that they would have a space program are in the middle of a space economy that's growing," he said. "There are about 80 space agencies across the world, about 10 of them have the ability to get to space from their sovereign territory. We can just take an airport and do that."
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When it comes to investing in the space industry, Hart emphasizes the importance of differentiation.
"We've taken a different approach from all of our competitors," Hart said. "We're using the flexibility of air launch, but we can really enter markets that are not entered right now, as well as use the efficiency of an airplane and basically reduce the cost of the rocket."
In addition to expanding its LauncherOne service internationally, Hart says Virgin Orbit is working with the U.S. Space Force and national security community on ways the technology can be further utilized. He also cited areas of opportunity in the Internet of Things, synthetic aperture radar and hyperspectral technology.
"These are areas that are growing significantly," he said. "And I would look for areas that have a really good growth possibility."
NEXTGEN ACQUISITION II
Virgin Orbit previously announced plans to go public through a SPAC deal with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II valued at approximately $3.2 billion, though the company has not offered an update on timing.
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