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.
On Monday, Virgin Orbit attempted the first full flight of its orbital payload launch system, which includes a modified Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’ that acts as a carrier aircraft for its air-launched rocket LauncherOne. While Virgin Orbit has flown Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne previously for different tests and demonstrations, this was the first end-to-end system test. Unfortunately, that test ended much earlier than planned – just shortly after the LauncherOne rocket was released from Cosmic Girl.
We’ve confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base.
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.”
While the Cosmic Girl crew and all other employees are confirmed safe by the company, this is likely to be a disappointing test. Still, Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart and VP Will Pomerantz cautioned that many first test missions for new launch systems don’t go quite as planned – which is why you test, after all.
The full planned flight map today for Virgin One’s orbital test.
The company will still likely be able to collect a lot of valuable data from this mission, which should provide insight into what went wrong. Once the company addresses the problems, it’s likely to set another attempt, and that might not be as far away as you might expect because Virgin has been very active on its launch vehicle pipeline and has backup craft nearly ready to fly.
“After being released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lighted its booster engine on cue — the first time the company had attempted an in-air ignition,” Virgin Orbit said via a spokesperson about today’s mission. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight, and the mission safely terminated. The carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl and all of its crew landed safely at Mojave Air and Space Port, concluding the mission.”
Virgin Orbit held a press briefing on Saturday hosted by CEO Dan Hart and VP of Special Projects Will Pomerantz. The company aims to fly its first ever orbital test launch on Sunday, at roughly 9:30 AM PT (12:30 PM ET), though there’s flexibility for that to move depending on preparations and weather. If it succeeds with this test, it’ll join an elite club of private spaceflight companies that have actually made it to orbit – but that’s not the only measure of success for Virgin for tomorrow’s test run.
Hart and Pomerantz took journalists through the flight plan and different scenarios of what could happen, tempering expectations by reminding those on the call that “about half” of a company’s first full flights fail. While Pomerantz pointed out the failure rate, he was also quick to note that he’s extremely proud of the work the Virgin Orbit team has done to date, and has confidence in their skill sand abilities.
“You essentially get to a point where you have looked under every rock and verify that there’s nothing more for you to do to verify that the system is ready,” Pomerantz said. “That’s what we have done. We’ve ygone through an enormous amount of tests, we’ve essentially done everything that we can think of that we should do including fill the rocket up with cryogenics and fuel and pressure and and fly it out to the drop.”
The point Pomerantz makes is one that comes up often in rocket and spaceflight vehicle development – you can test systems individually, run simulations, and prepare as much as you possibly can, but nothing quite compares to actually flying the full system as it’s intended to fly under real-world conditions.
Virgin Orbit expects to begin fueling the rocket very early on Sunday morning, and as mentioned it’s targeting 9:30 AM PT (12:30 PM ET) for the actual launch, though it has a couple of hours of flexibility after that point in case things need to move. From there, the company’s Cosmic Girl launcher, which is modified Boeing 747 aircraft that carries its LauncherOne rocket, will fly for about 45 minutes to an hour to reach the drop point at around 35,000 feet. That’s when the rocket will separate, and ignite its own engine and continue – hopefully all the way to space, though Virgin will be monitoring its performance and conditions and could stop short of actual orbit depending on how the launch is proceeding.
From the drop point, Cosmic Girl will return to its runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where it should land roughly 30 minutes after releasing LauncherOne. The whole point of the launch is to gather more data for ensuring that each part of the process works as designed once the launch vehicles graduate to operational status, and Hart explained.
“The purpose of this flight is to incrementally test the rocket and the airplane and the system as we pass through the operation,” Hart said. We will be loading and learning as we go through the day. So we’ll be getting data on our load sequence, our captured carry flight out, and the full flight of the rocket after it drops through first stage flight, separation, second stage flight, and so forth and so on. And we have telemetry stations around the world to capture the data as it comes down. The data, for tomorrow, is the product of that flight.”
The results of this flight will inform Virgin Orbit’s go-forward strategy, which includes hopefully flying one to two more times this year, which Pomerantz pointed out is actually fairly aggressive in terms of goals relative to other new spacecraft developed in past. Then they’ll also look to fly around twice as many times in 2021.
Asked about their market fit, Hart pointed out that he doesn’t believe the small satellite industry is still well-served in terms of a range of flexible offerings, noting that ride share missions often leave spacecraft in less than optimal orbits, where they either just operate in a compromised fashion or have to rely on an in-space bus to carry them the rest of the way. Virgin Orbit aims to be affordable enough that small satellite clients can use it to take them exactly where they need to go. He also added that because of the design of its in-air launcher, it’s flexible in terms of launch sites, which basically means it can take off and fly a mission from wherever a Boeing 747 can operate – which definitely isn’t true of any traditional rocket operator.
As Hart also noted, the number of companies that are actually flying to space and delivering payloads on behalf of customers is still tiny – there are a lot of companies working towards that goal, but few who’ve actually succeeded, even in a test mission. Virgin Orbit could join that elite club tomorrow – provided everything goes well.
Virgin Orbit has secured an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its ventilator, which the small satellite launch company designed and prototyped within the past few weeks in response to growing need for ventilator hardware to address the most severe cases of COVID-19 infection. Virgin Orbit anticipates deliveries of the ventilator hardware to start “within the next few days” now that it has secured the agency’s authorization.
Virgin Orbit designed its ventilator, which is a take on an automated version of the manual resuscitators used most frequently in ambulances by paramedics responding to calls where a person has lost the ability to breath on their own, based on guidance form a group of experts and doctors called ‘The Bridge Ventilator Consortium.” It’s designed mostly as a stop-gap and supplement to free up use of proper ventilator hardware to treat the most severe respiratory symptoms in COVID-19 patients, but should still free up a valuable medical resources that are in short supply as the pandemic continues.
Already, Vrigin says it’s manufacturing the ventilators, and is making “over 100 per week” in terms of its ongoing production rate. The initial delivery set to go out this week will be 100 units that will be shipped to California’s Emergency Medial Services Authority, for distribution depending on need in that sate.
While it has done a lot to quickly ramp up this production line and start shipping ventilators, Virgin Orbit says that it’s been continuing to build out its own small satellite launch system. In fact, it just recently flew a key final test of its LauncherOne vehicle and the carrier aircraft that brings it to its launch altitude – the last big step before it runs a full demonstration of its system, including an orbital flight, later this year.
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.