Virgin Orbit wins LauncherOne contract for Italian smallsat

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WASHINGTON — Italian small satellite builder Sitael has signed Virgin Orbit to send a technology demonstration satellite into low-Earth orbit next year.

Sitael’s µHETsat, a demonstrator for a new electric propulsion system built with the European and Italian space agencies, will fly on LauncherOne “mid-next year,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit Chief Executive, told SpaceNews Aug. 11.

Virgin Orbit is preparing to begin commercial services with LauncherOne, its air-launched small satellite orbital vehicle, in 2018. Other customers for the launch system, which can carry 500 kilograms to LEO, include NASA, OneWeb, and Sky and Space Global.

“As a small satellite customer, we are very excited for our innovative SITAEL technologies to get the flexibility and service of a primary payload on a dedicated small launch vehicle by Virgin Orbit,” Nicola Zaccheo, Sitael CEO, said in an Aug. 11 statement. “The satellite, developed in partnership with Italian Space Agency and European Space Agency, is the first all-electric micro satellite ever in space, validating both the SITAEL bus (S-75 platform) and SITAEL low power Hall Effect Thruster (HT100).”

LauncherOne is carried on the wing of a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft named Cosmic Girl to an altitude of around 10.6 kilometers (35,000 feet). From there the launcher detaches and carries spacecraft to LEO.