Virgin Orbit aims to offer responsive launch and constellation maintenance services

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SAN JOSE, California – Virgin Orbit plans to offer customers a variety of services including responsive launch, maintenance of large satellite constellations and potentially debris removal, Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit president and chief executive, said April 4 at the Space 2.0 conference here.

In 2018, Virgin Orbit plans to conduct the first test launch and initial commercial flight of LauncherOne, its air-launched rocket designed to send payloads weighing 300 kilograms into sun synchronous orbit and 500 kilograms into low inclination orbits. Some customers will fill LauncherOne’s fairing with a single satellite while other customers will launch multiple satellites on the rocket, Hart said.

As Virgin Orbit meets with potential commercial and government customers, the company is beginning to define what it calls “concierge service to orbit,” Hart said.

For larger constellations, Virgin Orbit is “under contract to do operations and maintenance,” Hart said. “The satellite constellations that have hundreds or thousands of satellites will send them up on large rockets. Then, as the satellites age or there’s infant mortality, there will be a need to replenish satellites at various planes.”

At that point, it would be inefficient for the constellation operators to purchase a larger rocket or ride as a secondary payload, Hart said.

“If you need to put two satellites in a plane, you are going to waste a lot of money buying a large rocket or spend a lot of time drifting over a hitchhiked satellite to your orbit,” Hart said. “So there’s a lot of interest from those companies in dedicated launch capability.”

Virgin Orbit plans to serve those large constellations by “putting up spares, servicing specific planes and potentially handling debris if it shows up in their orbit,” Hart said.

Hart said that until recently he didn’t see much of a business case for space debris removal, but that is changing with the number of satellites people plan to send into low Earth orbit.

“There will be a real need to clear out debris in low Earth orbits if satellites have issues in their orbital slots. And with thousands of satellites planned, that is going to happen,” Hart said. “I’ve recently become a believer that space debris is a problem that needs to be solved and I’m happy to see there are companies rising up to take that on.”

A key element of Virgin Orbit’s concierge service will be flexible and responsive space access, Hart said. LauncherOne flies off the wing of a modified Boeing 747.

“Commercial customers say the idea of getting into orbit within days is very appealing for them,” Hart said. “For national security world, that has always been a goal. For once, the commercial and government worlds are perfectly well aligned.”

Initially, Virgin Orbit’s 747, called Cosmic Girl, will fly from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and “we are planning to fly out of the Kennedy Space Center,” Hart said. “As the industry matures and people want to go to different orbits, we can fly out of pretty much any airport that can handle a 747. Of course we have to handle some propellant as well and licensing and so forth.”