Virgin Orbit nearing first launch

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Virgin Orbit says it is weeks away from the first orbital launch of its LauncherOne rocket as the company makes plans to move quickly into operations if that flight is successful.

The company said in a series of tweets Jan. 31 that is in final preparations for its test launch, with the LauncherOne rocket attached to its Boeing 747 aircraft for a final series of tests and dress rehearsals at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. That includes a captive carry flight, where the plane will take off with the rocket attached for the entire flight.

The company didn’t disclose when that launch would take place beyond that it was “really close” to being ready for the flight. Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said that launch would take place in the “coming weeks” during a panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 4.

“We are positioned at the end of the runway in Mojave. Our rocket is married to our 747,” he said. “We’re going through launch rehearsals.”

In an interview after the panel, Hart said that the company was ready to move into operatons quickly should that test launch be a success. “If we have a great day, we’re poised to go forward pretty much immediately,” he said. The next LauncherOne rocket is currently “well along” in assembly at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory.

He acknowledged, though, the risk that the first launch may not be successful. “It’s a launch demo. We’re pretty focused on that,” he said. “We’re mindful that first launches of new launch systems sometimes have issues. We’re ready, both technically and emotionally, for that.”

Should that first launch not succeed, he said the company should be able to correct those problems fairly quickly and try again. “We’re hardware-rich, which has been the philosophy of the program.”

Hart said that, after that demonstration launch, the next few missions would also take place from Mojave. The company is working with the U.S. Air Force to perform a launch from Guam, which he said would demonstrate the system’s flexibility.

“It starts to address responsive launch,” he said of that Guam mission. “It’s a capability that is unique to our platform, and there’s a lot of excitement around it both in our government as well as other governments.”

The ability to launch from a wide range of airports is a key selling point for LauncherOne, setting it apart from a crowded market of small launch vehicles. “Given that we are an air-launch system, we will be the most flexible, responsive, and probably the only really portable launch system in the world,” he said. “That differentiates us.”

That capability has attracted a mix of government and commercial customers. Hart said Virgin Orbit sees three distinct groups: commercial customers, U.S. government customers and those from other national governments. Commercial customers account for more than 50% of the overall business, he said.

A sweet spot for the vehicle, he said, are “small constellations” of between 10 and 100 satellites. “It’s a very interesting market for us,” he said, both for deployment of the initial constellation and launching replacement satellites. There’s a growing interest in such constellations, he argued, not just from companies but various nations that once would have considered a satellite system unaffordable.

“Now that satellites are much less expensive and launch is much less expensive, a tailored system for a country that never thought it was going to put up its own space system is now a reality,” he said. “You might now envision a small constellation to support some of your needs, so you have control and access to data, that you would never have thought of 10 years ago when you were happy to buy a picture.”

Some studies estimate that there are 100 or more small launchers in various phases of development, with many, including Hart, predicting a shakeout in the next few years. “I think business fundamentals will drive a shakeout in the launch industry,” he said. “Companies will have to serve their customers with a value that is meaningful to them, and they have to be healthy businesses.”

“There is a huge difference between the startups that are a handful of people with an idea and the people who really have all of the engineering and all of the operational skills in place to perform a launch and perform it repeatedly,” he added.