Virgin Orbit 747
Virgin Orbit expects to perform the first launch of its LaunchOne small rocket this summer. The company acknowledges there's a glut of companies in that part of the overall launch market. Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — Spaceflight announced June 25 an agreement with Virgin Orbit for a future dedicated rideshare mission as it seeks to diversify its options for launching smallsats.

Seattle-based Spaceflight said it signed a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Orbit for one flight of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launch system in 2019. LauncherOne is scheduled to perform its first launch later this year.

“LauncherOne offers timely and targeted access to the equator and mid-latitudes, and we’re excited to provide this innovative service to our customers via this partnership with Virgin Orbit,” Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight, said in a statement announcing the agreement.

Spaceflight is best known for arranging for launching small satellites as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles. While the company has launched more than 140 satellites through such rideshare missions, customers are limited to the orbits being used by the primary payload, which typically have been sun-synchronous orbit or geostationary transfer orbit.

“We saw the demand going up for low- and mid-inclination launches about a year or two ago,” said Melissa Wuerl, vice president of business development for Spaceflight, in an interview. Customers, she said, were asking for launches to those inclinations, but Spaceflight could not find launches for those customers.

LauncherOne, which can carry up to 500 kilograms to low Earth orbit, offers a solution though a dedicated rideshare mission that can be filled with a modest number of payloads. Wuerl said the company was still finalizing its contract with Virgin Orbit and identifying who will be on that launch.

Another advantage of the dedicated rideshare mission, she argued, is customer service. “Something that Virgin will provide is the Virgin Group customer experience,” she said. “That’s sort of been missing in the rideshare business, where we’re secondary and auxiliary to the primary payload.”

This agreement is not Spaceflight’s first foray into dedicated launches. The company has a contract with SpaceX for a dedicated Falcon 9 launch, called SSO-A, scheduled for later this year carrying several dozen payloads. Earlier this month, the company announced an agreement with Rocket Lab where it will buy the “vast majority” of capacity on three Electron launches in late 2018 and 2019.

Spaceflight, though, will continue to offer more traditional rideshare services based on customers’ needs and available capacity on other launches. Wuerl said Spaceflight works with launch providers, sharing its backlog of customers to identify payloads that could be accommodated on their launches.

“It’s always been Spaceflight’s philosophy to give smallsat customers the greatest variety of possible access to space,” she said. “Sometimes we’re buying the whole rocket and sometimes we’re filling capacity.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...