Virgin Orbit ready for first night launch

by

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit says it’s ready for a nighttime launch for the U.S. Space Force as it attempts to get into a more frequent rhythm of building and launching vehicles.

Virgin Orbit executives said at a June 28 briefing that their LauncherOne system was set for its fifth orbital launch attempt, a mission called “Straight Up” by the company. Its Boeing 747 aircraft that serves as a launch platform is scheduled to take off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 1 a.m. Eastern June 30.

The only issue, said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit chief executive, was with airport infrastructure he said was damaged in a lightning storm last week, which he only described as “one of the standard aid systems for a commercial runway.” He added there are “workarounds” if the system can’t be repaired in time.

The customer for the mission is the U.S. Space Force, which designated it STP-S28A. It is carrying seven payloads for the Space Test Program, primarily science and technology demonstration cubesats. The goal of the launch is to deploy the payloads into a 500-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 45 degrees, the same orbit as on the previous LauncherOne mission in January.

That previous launch, and all earlier LauncherOne missions, took place during daylight. The nighttime launch, Hart said, is not driven by any payload requirements. “It’s expanding the envelope and going through the ops for nighttime missions, because we have some of those on our books,” he said. “We want to make sure we do them first in our backyard here in Mojave.”

Hart confirmed that, after the Straight Up launch, the next LauncherOne mission will be the first from the United Kingdom, flying out of Spaceport Cornwall. That launch, a joint mission for the U.K. Ministry of Defence and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, is now expected in the “September time frame,” Hart said. The company previously projected that launch to take place in August.

That schedule is dependent on Virgin Orbit receiving a launch license from the U.K. government as well as a separate license for Spaceport Cornwall. “It’s the first time that space launch has been licensed in the U.K.,” he said, with that licensing being done by the Civil Aviation Authority. “They have been quite engaged with our experts, making sure they understand the system.”

He added there is “tremendous interest all the way up through the minister and above levels in the U.K.” in the launch. “All things are moving in a good direction for Cornwall.”

Straight Up will be the second LauncherOne mission of the year. Hart said that the company was maintaining earlier projections of four to six launches this year but will update that in its next earnings call, scheduled for August.

While nearly a year and a half has passed since the first successful LauncherOne mission in January 2021, Virgin Orbit has been slow to ramp up its launch activity, conducting only two more launches, both successful, since then. Hart attributed that to the growing pains of transitioning from development to operations.

“You’ve got two competing objectives. One is to just build more of the same and increase rate, which is really important, and the other is to make whatever modifications are needed or are desired to extend margin or expand performance or capabilities,” he said. “Pretty much all programs go through that.”

Hart said that, through that process, the company is seeing improvements in efficiency and cost. “We’re seeing the right trends and the right things happening in the system, and it’s a matter now of turning that crank and accelerating.”