Would-be small satellite launch service provider Virgin Orbit is aiming to redo its key orbital demonstration launch this December, which would be a remarkable turnaround after its attempt in March didn’t manage to reach orbit as the company had hoped. The company aims to offer low-cost launch services for small satellites, using its mid-air launch vehicle which is carried to a high altitude by a modified version of a traditional commercial jet.
This launch will hopefully mark a first for Virgin Orbit – the first time it has reached orbit, which is where it needs to be to provide the services it hopes to offer. CNBC spoke to Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, who said that the December target is based on where they’re at right now with the construction of a new LauncherOne rocket to fly the test mission.
LauncherOne is docked with Virgin Orbit’s carrier craft for its launch model, which is a modified d747. The jet takes it up to around 45,000 feet, at which point it drops the rocket, which ignites its own engines after separation and then flies under its own power the rest of the way to space. A rocket has a much easier time leaving Earth’s atmosphere from that altitude, which is why Virgin hopes to be able to offer big cost benefits for dedicated small launch services vs. what’s available now.
In March, Virgin’s launch went smoothly up until just after the LauncherOne craft used on that mission fired up its engines. There was a failure that caused the engines to cut off because of a safety shutoff, and the rocket then fell back safely to Earth, but was obviously lost.
Such a mishap on a first orbital launch attempt is far from unusual – in fact, it’s almost the norm. Virgin Orbit said they gleaned a lot of great data from their attempt regardless of the outcome, and hopefully that will mean this next try goes to plan. If it does, that should put the company on track to begin offering commercial service next year.
Meanwhile, CNBC reports that the company is also in the process of tracking down up to $150 million in new funding, echoing an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal this week.
SpaceX has raised $1.9 billion in new funding, per a filing with the SEC from Tuesday which was first spotted by Reuters. The company had been reported to be in the funding process earlier by Bloomberg, which pegged the post-money valuation of SpaceX at $46 billion following this raise.
The new funding for the still private SpaceX hardly comes as a surprise; The Elon Musk -led private launch company has been seeking funding since earlier this year, but Bloomberg reported last week that it increased the size of investment it was seeking owing to strong demand from the investment community.
The round was reportedly oversubscribed, though there isn’t yet much information available about who participated in the round (Bloomberg’s report said Fidelity Investments was among the largest in, but they did not confirm). SpaceX might be better positioned than ever to seek significant resources from investors, given the string of high-profile successes it has recorded recently.
Those include completing the first ever private human spaceflight mission to take off from U.S. soil. That mission, Demo-2, took off from Florida in May and returned the astronauts it carried to Earth earlier this month after a two-month stint at the International Space Station. Its successful completion means SpaceX can now regularly supply transportation services to and from the ISS – and puts them closer than ever to offering commercial spaceflight services for private tourists, researchers and more.
SpaceX has also made good progress on its Starlink spacecraft development program, with a successful short test flight of the prototype this month, and it won multiple multi-year contracts from NASA and the U.S. government for launch services this year.
It’s currently in the process of a very capital-intensive endeavor, too, which could explain the size of the round: Deploying Starlink, the massive satellite constellation that it will own and operate, and that will provide commercial and residential broadband internet services to customers in hard to reach areas once it’s active. Just this morning, SpaceX launched 58 more Starlink satellites, but it will have to launch many more before it can achieve its goal of global coverage.
Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership …
Intelsat has tapped SpaceX for the launch of its Intelsat 40e spacecraft, a high-throughput communications satellite that will join the company’s existing geostationary network. The satellite is being built by Maxar, Intelsat announced last month, and will be carried to its target orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket using a …
Small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit is teaming up with Israel’s ImageSat International (ISI) to develop a launch services that would be able to deliver small satellite-based Earth observation on remarkably short notice, basically anywhere in the world. This is a service aimed specifically at national security and intelligence customers, and combines the benefits of ISI’s remote sensing expertise and capabilities, with Virgin Galactic’s ability to launch on relatively short notice from basically any allied spaceport facility using its LauncherOne system.
LauncherOne uses a two-stage rocket to deliver small satellites (those weighing up to 660 lbs) to low-Earth orbit, after being deployed by a modified aircraft that takes off like a traditional jumbo jet. The LauncherOne vehicle then deploys from a high altitude, reducing the fuel costs of launch and making it possible to deliver small payloads to space for as little as $12 million per launch.
Because of its unique design, Virgin Galactic and ISI suggest that this is an optimal way to serve the needs of intelligence and defense customers who might have a need for satellite-based observation arise suddenly, and require immediate fulfilment in order to deal with a time-limited situation. It’s true that agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) specifically seek vendors who can fulfil needs with a fast turnaround time, and specifically introduced a program called ‘Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket’ (RASR) to source these. Launch startup Rocket Lab announced that its first mission this year would be part of that program, and it’s a likely target for this cooperation between Virgin Orbit and ISI as well.
By offering essentially launch-on-demand capabilities combined with a full range of high-resolution imaging satellites, and analytics services for the resulting data, this definitely has the potential to be an appealing product for the national security industry. Virgin Orbit still has to clear the key hurdle of actually demonstrating a successful orbital launch, but that should take place sometime this year if all goes to plan.