LauncherOne in flight
Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 with the LauncherOne rocket attached shortly before the rocket's release May 25 on an unsuccessful orbital launch attempt. Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit will fly a Spire cubesat in addition to several other payloads on its next LauncherOne launch, scheduled for no earlier than Dec. 22.

Virgin Orbit announced Dec. 9 that Spire’s ADLER-1 three-unit cubesat had been added to the manifest for that upcoming launch, called “Above the Clouds” by Virgin Orbit. The satellite, whose name is derived from Austrian Debris Detection Low Earth (orbit) Reconnoiter, was developed in partnership with the Austrian Space Forum and Findus Venture GmbH. It will collect data on the environment of “micro” space debris in low Earth orbit using a short-range radar provided by Spire.

In the statement, Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said only 20 days elapsed between initial discussions and the agreement to add the satellite, and from there 36 hours to get Federal Aviation Administration authorization to add the satellite to the mission and integrate it onto the vehicle.

“Spire’s recent addition to Above the Clouds is a great example of the flexibility of LauncherOne’s capabilities, the agility of both our teams, and the flexibility and support of the FAA in enabling rapid and responsive deployment of satellites to low Earth orbit,” Hart said.

Virgin Orbit announced the mission in November. At the time the two customers were the Defense Department’s Space Test Program (STP) and Polish satellite manufacturer SatRevolution. STP is flying several smallsats from government agencies to test communications and navigation technologies, as well as a university payload. SatRevolution is flying its STORK-3 imaging satellite and SteamSat-2, a satellite that will test water-fueled thrusters developed by British company SteamJet Space Systems.

In the statement about adding the Spire satellite, Virgin Orbit said the launch is scheduled for some time between mid-December and mid-January. According to a notice to mariners published by the U.S. Coast Guard Dec. 8, the company is planning a launch between 5 and 8 p.m. Eastern Dec. 22, with backup dates of Dec. 23 and Jan. 8–10.

The launch will be the fourth flight of LauncherOne. An inaugural launch in May 2020 failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s first-stage engine shut down several seconds into flight. The company reached orbit on its second launch in January, followed by another successful launch in June.

Virgin Orbit is also nearing conclusion of its merger with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). The merger, announced Aug. 23, would turn Virgin Orbit into a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq and raise up to $483 million to fund the company’s expansion.

The two companies announced Dec. 8 that the Securities and Exchange Commission had declared effective the registration statement for the merger, a key step to completing the deal. Shareholders of NextGen are scheduled to vote on the merger Dec. 28, with the companies completing the deal “as soon as practicable” after the vote.

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...