Virgin Orbit: Blazing Trails And Making Moves

Virgin Orbit

Founded in 2017, Virgin Orbit is an aerospace company that is a part of the Virgin Group that has plans to provide satellite launch services for small satellites that launch from their custom made Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl. 

The goal of the Virgin Orbit is to provide space operations capabilities for human spaceflight, small satellite launches, and advanced aerospace concepts.

The way that Virgin Orbit plans to compete with companies such as SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin in the NewSpace Market is by providing a horizontal launch platform. Whereas, its competitors utilize a rocket that has to start from the ground and is constrained by the weather at the launch site, Virgin Orbit is using Cosmic Girl as an air launch to orbit system. Because weather is less of a constraint, Virgin Orbit will be able to provide a platform that is better able to position its payload at better launch positions, which can mean faster launching off satellites. By utilizing a plane and launching the satellite from under the wing, this provides a principal advantage of conserving the amount of fuel and size of the rocket,

With a larger fraction of the rocket mass being geared towards the payload, Virgin Orbit is able to reduce launch costs and hopefully pass that savings to customers.

Virgin Orbit Activities

Virgin Orbit did purchase a Boeing 747-400 from Virgin Atlantic, which it has refit for the purpose of using as the first stage launch platform for the air launches of their LauncherOne Orbital Launch Vehicle. Named Cosmic Girl, this 747 resides in Long Beach California and has been modified to provide an excellent launch platform. There were plans to use a smaller launch platform for the Virgin Orbit launches; however, due to the design of LauncherOne was expanded to better encompass the marketplace and acquire marketshare of small launches. This meant a new platform was required to launch LauncherOne, which resulted in the acquisition of Cosmic Girl for LauncherOne operations. The use of Cosmic Girl for LauncherOne operations not only makes the plane the first 747 to be utilized as a space launch platform. The use of Cosmic Girl allows Virgin to double the payload of the current LauncherOne capacity to 200 kg, with the maximum capacity being 400 kg. Virgin Orbit saw the first test of LauncherOne be released by Cosmic Girl successfully, but the 3rd of 4 rockets experienced issues, which Virgin Orbit said was only expected to be 50% successful anyways.[3] Once resolved, this could lead to operations of Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne to be put into action within several months, which will depend on both the market and environment.

Other activities include creating a subsidiary called VOX Space, which Virgin says has the potential to supply launch services for the US military. The plan is to utilize the LauncherOne launch vehicle to launch groups of satellites into sun-synchronous orbit. The US military awarded VOX Space a $25 million contract to provide 3 launches of 44 CubeSats, which is currently expected to happen in October 2021 at the earliest.[1][2]

Sources And Further Reading

[1] = https://spacenews.com/virgin-orbits-vox-space-wins-35-million-u-s-space-force-launch-contract/
[2] = https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2020/04/launcherone-wins-three-dedicated-smallsat-missions/
[3] = https://www.theregister.co.uk/2020/05/22/virgin_orbit/

https://www.inverse.com/innovation/virgin-galactic-spin-off

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