Virgin Orbit responsive launch system
Virgin Orbit's concept for a responsive launch architecture includes multiple aircraft that could launch a constellation within hours. Credit: Virgin Orbit

LOGAN, Utah — As Virgin Orbit prepares to attempt its first orbital launch later this year, the company is offering a long-term vision of using multiple planes flying from multiple spaceports to be able to deploy an entire constellation within hours.

In an Aug. 7 presentation at the Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University here, John Fuller, director of advanced concepts at Virgin Orbit, outlined a “responsive launch enterprise” that makes use of the company’s air-launch system to quickly deploy small satellites.

“The whole idea is a modular architecture,” he said. “What does that get you? Constellation population in a day or less.”

Fuller discussed in his presentation analyses run by the company of various scenarios for deploying constellations of low Earth orbit satellites for imaging, communications or other applications. The study assumed that each orbital plane in the constellation could be populated by a single LauncherOne mission, carrying 300 to 500 kilograms worth of satellites.

In one example of a remote sensing system in sun-synchronous orbit, the entire constellation could be deployed in as little as 4.3 hours, assuming the company has six of its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft operating from three or four spaceports. Operating from a single spaceport, the constellation could be deployed in 8.9 hours assuming three aircraft and four-hour recycle times for the aircraft.

Key to this architecture, Fuller said, is the use of a mobile air-launch platform. Virgin Orbit can operate, in theory, from any airport that can accommodate a 747. “It’s actually proving out we can go in some places where a commercial 747 can’t be accommodated,” he said, because the aircraft, stripped of much of the cabin equipment and other systems found in a typical airliner, is unusually light.

The company also has ground support equipment, such as a clean room, that is mobile and can be transported to an airport. Virgin Orbit’s architecture could use some of its 747 aircraft in a cargo configuration, transporting that equipment inside the fuselage.

Such a concept could support growing interest in responsive launch architectures, particularly by the U.S. military. He emphasized, though, that this responsive launch enterprise is not something the company plans to implement in the near future.

“This is not obviously something in the immediate near term, but it’s really a picture of what we think a spaceport hub could really look like,” he said, showing an illustration of several 747 aircraft and LauncherOne rockets at a site. He didn’t give an estimate of how much such an architecture would cost or how long it would take to develop.

What is in the near term for Virgin Orbit is the first orbital launch attempt by its LauncherOne rocket. The company performed a drop test of a LauncherOne test article July 10, the final major test milestone before that first flight later this year.

“There’s a rocket that’s going to launch in two months,” Fuller said.

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...