Virgin Orbit expects first UK launch in August

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Virgin Orbit plans to make its first launch from England in late August, pending the award of a UK launch license, a company executive said May 25.

In a speech at Space Tech Expo here, Jim Simpson, Virgin Orbit’s chief strategy officer, said the company is gearing up for that launch in late August. It will come after a launch from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California called “Straight Up” scheduled for no earlier than June 29 that will carry seven US government payloads.

“The UK launch is at the end of August. That’s the plan now,” he said. The company holds a US government export control license and has carried out the “majority” of the work required for a UK government launch license through the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK equivalent of Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s all done, effectively,” he said, though he didn’t estimate when to expect an official launch license award. Spaceport Cornwall, the English airport that will host Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, will also need to obtain a license from the CAA.

“We are extremely excited. This will be the first launch ever from UK soil,” he noted, referring to orbital launches. “It will demonstrate a lot of different things, including the mobility of our system.”

Simpson said the payloads for this mission have been selected, although it’s unclear if all have been announced yet. Two of the payloads are Prometheus 2 cubesats developed by the UK Ministry of Defense in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office. Others that have been announced are Amber-1, a cubesat developed by Satellite Applications Catapult and Horizon Technologies for maritime tracking; Forgestar-0, a satellite built by British startup Space Forge; Kernow Sat 1, a cubesat supported by Cornish local government for environmental monitoring; and a cubesat built by SatRevolution for the government of Oman.

Growth projects

LauncherOne is an air launch system consisting of a rocket deployed from a Boeing 747. This rocket can carry up to 300 kilograms into a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, but Simpson said improvements are underway to increase this capacity to around 350 kilograms by the end of 2023.

He also touched on other longer-term upgrades the company has hinted at in past presentations. One of them recovers the first stage of the rocket. “We do trades now,” he said, showing an illustration of a step descending under a parachute.

The company has looked at two options for a third stage, one of which is a solar-electric transfer vehicle being studied with ExoTerra as part of a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award. . The companies said last year that this stage could carry up to 180 kilograms to geostationary orbit and 150 kilograms to cislunar trajectories.

The company is also considering a possible “LauncherTwo” rocket that, instead of being carried under the wing of the Boeing 747, would instead be mounted on the fuselage. This vehicle, according to Simpson’s slide, could deliver three times the performance of LauncherOne.

“We are constantly moving forward as we produce the launchers,” he said.

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