Virgin Orbit Above the Clouds launch
On its third operational mission, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne placed seven cubesats into a 500-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 45 degrees. Credit: Virgin Orbit

ORLANDO, Fla. — Virgin Orbit placed seven cubesats for three customers into orbit Jan. 13 on the third consecutive successful operational flight of its LauncherOne air-launch system.

Cosmic Girl, the Boeing 747 aircraft that serves as the launch platform for LauncherOne, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 4:39 p.m. Eastern. It released the rocket at approximately 5:52 p.m. Eastern, which then ascended to low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 500 kilometers. Virgin Orbit tweeted an hour after release that all seven satellites on the rocket had been deployed.

Virgin Orbit shifted the drop point for this launch compared to previous ones, moving it to the west southwest, further out over the Pacific. That enabled the rocket to place the satellite into orbit at an inclination of 45 degrees, which the company said was the first time that a launch from a West Coast site reached that inclination.

“Our ability to achieve a 45-degree inclination out of the West Coast increases significantly the utility of a launch out of the West Coast,” Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said during a Jan. 11 call with reporters about the mission. “That kind of flexibility is unprecedented.”

The launch carried seven smallsats for three customers. Four of the satellites came through the Defense Department’s Space Test Program. The Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN) payload features two three-unit cubesats to test a rendezvous and docking system. Technology Education Satellite (TechEdSat) 13 is a three-unit cubesat sponsored by the NASA Ames Research Center to test several advanced technologies. The Globalstar Evaluation and Risk-Reduction Satellite (GEARRS) 3 is a three-unit cubesat from the Air Force Research Laboratory to test communications with the Globalstar satellite network using a patch antenna on the satellite’s exterior.

Two of the satellites were from SatRevolution, a Polish smallsat developer. STORK-3 is part of its constellation of imaging satellites, while SteamSat-2 will test water-fueled thrusters developed by a British company, SteamJet Space Systems. The seventh satellite is from Spire Global, which it developed with the Austrian Space Forum and Findus Venture GmbH to measure the orbital debris environment. Virgin Orbit said in December it added the Spire cubesat on short notice as a demonstration of its responsive launch capabilities.

Virgin Orbit declined to disclose the individual masses of the seven satellites or even the combined mass of the payloads. All seven satellites are three-unit cubesats; such satellites typically have masses of about five kilograms each.

This was the third operational mission in just under one year, after launches in January and June 2021. Those two earlier launches were successful as well. A demonstration mission in May 2020 failed to reach orbit when a propellant line broke seconds after ignition of the first-stage engine, shutting it down.

The launch is the first of six that Virgin Orbit has scheduled for 2022. Two of those are planned for Spaceport Cornwall in England, while the rest will fly out of Mojave.

The launch is also the first since Virgin Orbit completed its merger with a special purpose acquisition corporation (SPAC) and started trading on the Nasdaq Dec. 30. The deal raised $228 million for the company to fund the expansion of both its launch and satellite services businesses, less than half the amount that it projected when the deal was announced in August because of a high rate of redemptions among shareholders in the SPAC, who requested their money back rather than hold shares in the merged company.

Shares in Virgin Galactic went down in the first week of trading, but rebounded around the time the company held an “opening bell” ceremony at Nasdaq headquarters Jan. 7, which included putting a full-scale model of the LauncherOne rocket on display in Times Square. The stock closed at $9.40, down 5.6%, on Jan. 13, before the launch took place.

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...