Virgin Orbit, Japanese airline team up for air-launch system

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SEOUL, South Korea —Virgin Orbit has signed a non-binding agreement with ANA Holdings, the owner of All Nippon Airways, a major Japanese airline, for the procurement of 20 flights of its LauncherOne rocket originating from an airport in Japan’s Oita Prefecture.

Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding that Virgin Orbit announced Nov. 4, ANA and several partners will fund the manufacturing of mobile ground support equipment for the LauncherOne system that will fly from a pre-existing runway. ANA would also “lead the effort to provide funds and support for [the 20 envisioned] orbital missions,” Virgin Orbit said. 

 Pending regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan, Oita could be ready for launch missions by the end of 2022, Virgin Orbit said.

LauncherOne is a two-stage air-launched rocket capable of carrying small satellites weighing up to 500 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit. The rocket is carried to high altitude beneath the wing of a customized Boeing 747 airliner and released. 

Japan’s Oita Prefecture is Virgin Orbit’s second hand-picked location in Asia, after Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, to launch LauncherOne rockets. Launching from the U.S. Air Force base in Guam is expected to begin next year as the company cleared the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental review in September. While Virgin Orbit currently flies from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, it’s working to add Spaceport Cornwall in the United Kingdom to its launch sites.

“ANA is a world-class company with an incredible legacy of aerospace innovation, commercial success, and customer satisfaction that makes them an absolutely ideal partner to bring air-launch to Asia,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart in the Nov. 4 statement. “We are elated to be partnering with such a talented and honored firm to move space launch forward and serve the rapidly growing need for launch. We look forward to collaborating with ANA to foster the ongoing transformation of the space economy.”

Koji Shibata, ANA’s executive vice president, welcomed the partnership.

“ANA is excited to work with Virgin Orbit to offer responsive launch and space solutions services to customers in Japan. Demand for satellite launches in Japan and Asia is rapidly increasing, and it is hoped that the number of launches will be desired from the customers,” Shibata said in the same statement. “Virgin Orbit offers something no other launch company can, and that capability will be extremely valuable to the growing space industry in Japan and throughout the region.”