An illustration of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne system. Credit: Virgin Orbit Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit is one step closer to getting approval to launch satellites from Guam, a U.S. island territory in the Western Pacific. 

The Federal Aviation Administration on Aug. 27 released its final environmental assessment that found “no significant impact” for Virgin Orbit to conduct launches using its Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft and LauncherOne rocket from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. 

According to FAA’s report, Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of 25 launches over the next five years to place small satellites into a variety of low Earth orbits. However, the completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee the FAA will issue a launch license to Virgin Orbit, the agency said. “The company must also meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements.”

William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, told SpaceNews that the favorable environmental review marks a “significant step towards achieving our launch license for orbital spaceflight from Guam. We’re very grateful to the team at the FAA for the constant dialogue as we have moved through the process.”

A spinoff of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit plans to launch small satellites that weigh up to 500 kilograms, or about 1,100 pounds. The company completed its first successful launch in January and its second in June from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Virgin Orbit intends to launch from England’s Spaceport Cornwall and from Andersen Air Force as soon as its license is approved. 

The Boeing carrier aircraft flies LauncherOne rockets to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and releases them. The rockets then ignite their engine and blast off into space.

The U.S. Air Force’s 36th Wing at Andersen participated in the environmental review process. According to the FAA, Virgin Orbit would perform integration, mating, propellant loading operations, and takeoff and landing operations on Andersen Air Force Base. No construction or ground-disturbing activities would occur and there would be no change to existing infrastructure on Andersen.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...