Virgin Orbit to launch 11 satellites for NASA on second launch demo

Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl as seen in-flight during the company's cryogenic captive carry flight, April 2020. (Virgin Orbit photograph by Greg Robinson)

Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company, announced Aug. 3 that its LauncherOne rocket will carry 11 small satellites onboard the company’s upcoming Launch Demo 2 mission, as part of NASA’s CubeSat Initiative.

The mission is currently planned to occur before the end of the year, with Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Following the conclusion of the team’s first Launch Demo, which ended prematurely due to the failure of a high-pressure LOX line in the first stage, Virgin Orbit embarked on a weeks-long investigation of the anomaly’s root cause. With the investigation nearing its conclusion, the team now has a clear understanding of the anomaly and has begun implementing corrective actions in preparation for the next launch demonstration. The company released further details about that investigation and the corrective actions underway in a lengthy blog post today.

Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl is towed out to the runway ahead of the company’s cryogenic captive carry flight, April 2020. (Virgin Orbit photograph by Greg Robinson)

NASA was one of the first customers to sign up for a flight onboard Virgin Orbit’s new rocket, purchasing a flight through a competitive selection process run by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program (VLCS), which was designed to help open the door for future dedicated launch opportunities through new, firm fixed-price commercial launch capabilities. True to the spirit of the VCLS program, NASA has elected to fly on this Launch Demo 2 test flight. Nearly every satellite that will be onboard LauncherOne for this mission has been fully designed and built by universities across the U.S. The missions manifested for flight include:

* PolarCube (University of Colorado at Boulder)
* MiTEE (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)
* CACTUS-1 (Capitol Technology University, Laurel, Md.)
* Q-PACE (University of Central Florida, Orlando)
* TechEdSat-7 (NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.)
* RadFXSat-2 (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.)
* EXOCUBE (California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo)
* CAPE-3 (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, La.)
* PICS (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah). This mission consists of multiple CubeSats.
* INCA (New Mexico State University, Las Cruces)

Once in orbit, the satellites will conduct a variety of scientific studies as well as demonstrate new spacecraft technology.

“Expanding our domestic capability for small satellite launches is of great importance to NASA, CSLI, and the Launch Services Program,” said Scott Higginbotham, mission manager and CSLI/ELaNa lead for NASA. “The combination of innovative small satellites and new dedicated launch vehicles like the ones we are using through the VLCS program will help unlock new ways for NASA to conduct science and to advance space technology. We are excited to be part of this important demonstration mission and to have the opportunity to put these amazing spacecraft into orbit.”

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said: “We are so very honored to be supporting NASA by flying these payloads on our upcoming Launch Demo mission. NASA’s mission, coupled with the opportunity to provide a boost to space for university students, is incredibly inspiring to our whole team. It aligns perfectly with our central theme being to open space for everyone. The Virgin Orbit team is hard at work putting the final touches on our next rocket, and doing everything possible to assure a safe and successful flight.”

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