Virgin Orbit is set to fire seven satellites into space later today, when RAF pilot ‘Stanny’ unleashes the LauncherOne rocket from a Boeing 747.
Richard Branson’s space firm will put small satellites into a 310 mile orbit, launching from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California from 16:00 ET (21:00 GMT).
The jet will fly up to 35,000ft over the Pacific Ocean for an hour, before deploying the Launcher One rocket and roughly 660lb of satellites contained within.
This launch has been given the mission name, Above the Clouds, and will be among the first to launch into this 45 degree 310 mile orbit from the West Coast of the US.
It includes satellites from the US Department of Defense which are experiments in space-based communications and in-space navigation.
RAF pilot Matthew Stannard, known as ‘Stanny’, who is more accustomed to a Typhoon jet, will be at the controls of the customised Boeing 747 launcher Cosmic Girl.
Virgin Orbit is set to fire seven satellites into space later today, when RAF pilot ‘Stanny’ unleashes the LauncherOne rocket from a Boeing 747
RAF pilot Matthew Stannard, known as ‘Stanny’, more accustomed to a Typhoon jet, will be at the controls of Cosmic Girl, the customised Boeing 747 launcher
HOW VIRGIN ORBIT GETS SATELLITES INTO SPACE
TAKE OFF Cosmic Girl, an adapted Boeing 747, takes off from an air and space port, initially in California.
ROCKET DEPLOYMENT At cruising altitude around 35,000 feet, the chief pilot hits the Big Red Button that releases the rocket from the pylon.
FIRST STAGE BURN After a 4-second freefall, the first stage engine, NewtonThree, bursts to life, accelerating the rocket to more than 8,000 miles per hour. Once its fuel is spent, the first stage detaches.
FAIRING SEPARATION With LauncherOne now between 310 to 745 miles above the Earth’s surface, the fairing pops open, exposing the payload as it nears its destination.
SATELLITE DEPLOYMENT Finally, with very precise timing, the second stage ejects the satellite into its final orbit.
RETURN TO EARTH Atmospheric drag will eventually pull the second stage back down to Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere, minimising environmental footprint.
Virgin Orbit has already put 19 satellites into space using the Cosmic Girl and Launcher-One system, but the firm says this mission is different.
‘We are going to an orbit that we believe has never been achieved from the West Coast,’ Tony Gingiss, chief operating officer of Virgin Orbit told reporters.
‘We’re proving with this launch that we can get to orbital inclinations and geometries that, probably if you asked us a year ago, we would have said, ‘Well, maybe.’
The launch will see the team send the rocket at a 45 degree inclination up to a 310 mile orbital position, which they achieve by shifting the drop point.
‘We decided to fly the airplane further out over the Pacific so that we could fly along the coast of South America without going over landmasses,’ Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, told SpaceNews.
‘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,’
Pilot ‘Stanny’ will be the one to pull the trigger on the 70ft rocket, once the aircraft reaches 35,000ft. He is on a three-year secondment from the Royal Air Force, as part of a project designed to help the RAF understand the role of small satellite launches.
‘Stanny has been a wonderful addition to our team. As you’d expect given his background with the RAF, he brings a bright intellect, incredible attention to detail, and an excellent experience base, in addition to his world-class piloting skills,’ Virgin Orbit chief operating officer Tony Gingiss told the BBC.
His secondment is part of a wider investigation by the UK Ministry of Defence, that plans to one day use Virgin Orbit to launch military satellites from the UK.
This is the third launch for Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne, with one of the satellites made by Glasgow firm Spire Global. It will track weather conditions from orbit, as well as ship and plane movements, and was a last minute addition to the payload.
Virgin Orbit says being able to add additional satellites at relatively short notice — it was decided in December — is an example of its responsiveness and flexibility.
Another example is the fact it is a horizontal take-off system, meaning it can launch from a runway, and fly out to the desired insertion point.
This is the first of six launches Virgin Orbit has planned for this year, and two of them will launch from Spaceport Cornwall in the middle of the year.
The jet will fly up to 35,000ft over the Pacific Ocean for an hour, before deploying the Launcher One rocket and roughly 660lb of satellites contained within
This launch has been given the mission name, Above the Clouds, and will be among the first to launch into this 45 degree 310 mile orbit from the West Coast of the US
These will be the first satellites and first rocket to be launched from British soil, and forms part of a wider push by the UK Space Agency for British rocket launches.
Future satellites could be sent into polar orbits from the north of Scotland, including the Shetland Islands, where a number of firms, including Lockheed Martin and Skyrora are planning to operate within the coming few years.
In order to launch six times in 2022, Virgin Orbit is having to significantly increase turnaround time, with this mission six and a half months after the last.
‘We’ve basically cut it in half almost every successive launch to date,’ said Gingass, adding that for this mission the rocket left the factory in Long Beach, California and 04:00 and was installed on the 747 in Mojave six hours later.
The launch includes satellites from the US Department of Defense, that are experiments in space-based communications and in-space navigation
‘There’s certainly improvements you’re going to see throughout 2022 in terms of the timing between rockets,’ Gingiss explained to SpaceNews.
‘We are continuing to ramp up our efficiencies in our factory as well, which will allow us to get rockets out more quickly.’
Going forward, Virgin Orbit plan to add more launch sites to its roster, with Cornwall joining California in 2022, and Japan being added to the list for 2023.
The firm is also in discussion with Australia, Brazil, a number of European countries and the US Space Force to operate out of Guam.
RACE FOR THE FIRST ROCKET LAUNCH FROM BRITISH SOIL
The first ever rocket to take off from British soil is expected to launch by the end of 2022, although the exact location is currently unknown.
There is a race between spaceports in Scotland and Cornwall to be the one that takes the crown of first British launch site.
Spaceport Cornwall is a horizontal launch site, with a traditional airport runway, that is expected to play host to Virgin Orbit.
The Richard Branson founded firm works by sending Cosmic Girl, an adapted Boeing 747-400 aircraft, up to 35,000ft carrying the LauncherOne rocket.
When it reaches the target altitude the pilots deploy the rocket, which fires its engines and takes the payload – up to 300kg – into orbit.
According to a report in the Telegraph, the aim is to try to have the first rocket launch leave Earth before the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June.
Other competitors for the title of first British rocket launch include traditional vertical providers.
These include Lockheed Martin, Orbex and Skyrora – all of which operate from Scotland, including Shetland.
OneWeb, the satellite communications firm partly owned by the UK government, has been encouraged to make use of British launch capacity in the future.
They traditionally send their satellites, each weighing about 150kg, into orbit on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from Russia in batches of 50.
The problem with this is that British launch providers are looking to send small payloads, including nano satellites.
These typically weigh less than 1,000kg, meaning only one or two OneWeb satellites could be launched on a British rocket at any one time – so may only be useful for replacing single satellites, rather than part of the initial rollout of more than 650 spaceships.