GomSpace taps Virgin Orbit to launch nanosatellites for tracking ships and planes

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit, which expects to debut the air-launched LauncherOne rocket by summer, signed a contract Jan. 16 with GomSpace to send eight nanosatellites into orbit  next year to track airplanes and ships.

GomSpace, a Danish cubesat manufacturer, bought the launch on behalf of Aerial & Maritime Ltd. (A&M), a Mauritius-based startup GomSpace spun off to operate a constellation of 80 ship-and-plane-tracking satellites by 2021.

In a joint statement, Virgin Orbit and GomSpace said the early 2019 launch will put the satellites into a low-inclination orbit.

GomSpace CEO Niels Buus told SpaceNews the eight-satellite launch will be the first for A&M. GomSpace founded A&M in 2015 and still owns roughly a third of the company, Buus said.

William Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president of special projects, told SpaceNews Jan. 16 by email that GomSpace will be the primary customer for the early 2019 launch, which will carry other customers as well.

GomSpace is building the first eight nanosatellites for A&M by the end of this year. The constellation is designed to carry Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) payloads for tracking planes, and Automatic Identification System (AIS) payloads for maritime vessels.

A&M’s constellation will focus on tracking aviation and maritime traffic between 37 degrees north and south of the equator, roughly as far north as the Mediterranean Sea and Seoul, South Korea, and as far south as the bulk of South America and Auckland, New Zealand.

Since forming in 2015, A&M has raised $12.2 million with about $10 million of that going to  GomSpace for manufacturing, launch, ground services and commissioning of the constellation. Buus said GomSpace will continue to cede ownership as A&M grows, but doesn’t have a timeline for fully divesting. The Danish Investment Fund for Developing Countries and other investors own the 70 percent of A&M that GomSpace does not hold, he said.

GomSpace is building A&M’s satellites based on hardware from the GOMX-1 and GOMX-3 demonstration cubesats, launched in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Both satellites carried ADS-B payloads. Buus said GomSpace doesn’t give exclusive access to its technology even to its own spinoffs, and will act as a supplier to any customer interested in its nanosatellite products.

A&M is not the only company building space-based aviation-and-maritime-tracking services. In aviation, fleet operator Globalstar has an ADS-B service, Aireon is launching ADS-B hosted payloads on Iridium Next satellites, and Spire Global is including ADS-B payloads on its  next-generation satellites. Spire and fleet operator Orbcomm both have AIS businesses, as does Harris Corp. in partnership with exactEarth.

Virgin Orbit plans to conduct LauncherOne’s maiden flight during the first half of this year, and currently has a pathfinder rocket on a test stand in Mojave, California. More of the two-stage rockets are at the company’s Long Beach, California, Facility undergoing manufacturing and assembly. LauncherOne rockets use a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft called Cosmic Girl as a mobile launch pad, allowing the launch to occur above the densest part of the Earth’s atmosphere.