Virgin Orbit launch
Virgin Orbit, which has invested in Arqit, has been lined up to launch its satellites in 2023. Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next LauncherOne mission for June, carrying a mix of defense and commercial cubesats.

Virgin Orbit said May 6 that it will launch six cubesats on its next flight of its LauncherOne vehicle in June, flying out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The air-launched rocket will deploy the payloads into orbits at an altitude of 500 kilometers and inclination of 60 degrees.

The launch will be the first since its successful Launch Demo 2 mission in January, which carried 10 cubesats for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program. That launch was the first successful mission for LauncherOne, after a failed launch of the vehicle in May 2020.

Three of the cubesats will be from the Defense Department through the Space Test Program’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, under a contract awarded to Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space. The company did not disclose which satellites will fly on LauncherOne under that contract.

A fourth cubesat will be BRIK 2, a six-unit cubesat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force developed by Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space. The satellite will test communications technologies and demonstrate how cubesats can support Dutch military operations. BRIK 2 will also be a test of “late-load” integration of cubesats onto the LauncherOne vehicle shortly before launch.

The final two cubesats will be STORK-4 and STORK-5 from SatRevolution, a Polish company. Those three-unit cubesats will be the first in a 14-satellite constellation proposed by SatRevolution to provide medium-resolution multispectral imagery.

The announcement of the next launch was the latest in a series of developments for Virgin Orbit as it seeks to move into regular operations of the LauncherOne system, which uses a modified Boeing 747 as its launch platform. The company has touted the flexibility of an air-launch system, which can launch to any inclination from a wide range if airports, as a major selling point.

Virgin Orbit announced April 28 that the Brazilian government selected the company as one of four commercial launch operators to use the Alcântara Launch Center in Brazil, alongside C6 Launch, Hyperion and Orion AST. Virgin Orbit is the only air-launch system of the four and the only company with an operational orbital launch vehicle.

Alcântara would join Mojave and airports in Guam, England and Japan as potential launch sites for LauncherOne. The company, though, did not offer a schedule for a first flight from Alcântara.

The company is making progress toward a first launch from Spaceport Cornwall, also known as Cornwall Airport Newquay, in southwestern England. Virgin announced May 3 that it selected a British company, AVS Added Value Solutions, to build the ground support equipment needed to support LauncherOne missions from Cornwall. The first LauncherOne launch from Cornwall is tentatively scheduled for 2022.

Virgin Orbit also secured a new customer April 21, signing up QinetiQ and HyperSat to launch a constellation of six hyperspectral satellites. The first satellite will launch on a LauncherOne rocket in 2023. Company spokesperson Kendall Russell said there’s no schedule yet for the launch of the rest of the constellation.

Virgin Orbit is taking a page from one of its competitors in the small launch market, Rocket Lab, by naming its missions. The company said the June launch is called “Tubular Bells, Part One,” after the first track on the first album released by Virgin Records, the record company founded nearly a half-century ago by Richard Branson. The nontraditional album became one of the most popular albums of the 1970s.

“For the first flight after the conclusion of our test program, what could be more appropriate than to tip our hat to that creative work and those bold decisions?” the company said in a statement about the upcoming launch.

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...