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Virgin Orbit makes successful night launch at Mojave

Virgin Orbit successfully launched Straight Up, USSF Mission Number: STP-S28A, their first nighttime mission from the Mojave Air and Space Port July 2, 2022, after a previous attempt on June 29 was scrubbed due to a propellant temperature problem.

The rocket used in the Straight Up mission was mated on June 17 to Cosmic Girl, the 747 aircraft that serves as Virgin Orbit’s fully reusable launch platform. The rocket containing the payloads is tucked under the wing and launched from the 747 by LauncherOne over the California coast.

The launch began at 10:50 p.m. and ended at approximately 12:55 a.m., PDT, with the successful deployment of all seven payloads. While there was no “hard requirement” for a nighttime launch, Virgin Orbit officials said they considered it a precursor for the United Kingdom’s first satellite launch later this summer from Cornwall, in southwest Britain. One of satellites aboard this mission was from Scotland, according to the www.gov.uk website.

Paula Abdul touring the Cosmic Girl prior to launch in Mojave. The “Straight Up” mission name was inspired by the song from her debut studio album, “Forever Your Girl.” (Virgin Orbit photograph)

The UK official site also says that their National Space Strategy describes “how the UK will become the first country in Europe to launch satellites into orbit in 2022. Spaceport Cornwall is one of seven potential spaceport sites across the UK which will help to cement the nation’s role as a science superpower and help unleash a wave of innovation across the country.”

Matthew Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space agency was in Mojave for the launch and said in a statement, “The success of the Straight Up mission is another exciting milestone on our way to seeing the first satellite launch from UK soil. We are working closely with Virgin Orbit and it was a privilege to be alongside our partners to witness another successful launch for the team.”

The launch livestream explained that a nighttime launch from that spot in Britain is necessary because the customer has a requirement, called Local Time of Ascending Node. “The satellite will pass the Equator and they want it to happen the same time of day every time it passes it. In order to do that, we have to launch at a specific time,” in this case, midnight.

“The LauncherOne rocket and Virgin Orbit team have made me immensely proud with today’s Straight Up mission,” said Virgin Orbit founder Richard Branson. “There is so much potential benefit for everyone from space if we just manage it well together. We are delighted for the opportunity to work with the US government to help make space a safe and fruitful environment for all.”

The pilot in command was Eric Bippert, who has experience flying 49 different aircraft from the C-17 to the Goodyear Blimp, and second in command was Mathew “Stanny: Stannard, on loan from the Royal Air Force.

The seven payloads on the rocket are part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and will conduct experiments in space-based communications and to demonstrate a new modular satellite housing, or “bus;” space domain awareness to identify and protect assets in space; and adaptive radio frequency technologies. Space Force procured the launch for the Rocket Systems Launch Program.

Other payloads discussed on the livestream include: the Compact Solar Total Radiance Monitor, a six CubeSat. Its specialized sensors will monitor the sun’s energy entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Another one is XGPX2, a technology demonstration. It uses both orbiting satellites and ground station satellites to significantly increase the accuracy of the GPS. Nachos Two will measure gases in the atmosphere to track things such as volcanoes and climate change. As the name implies, it is the second in the series.

Program Manager Lt. Col. Justin Belts, chief of Small Launch and Targets Division at U.S. Space Force in Albuquerque, N.M., said “All seven of the payloads are important to us, but I think the Slingshot One payload that we will be flying is a great example” of Virgin orbit’s mission statement of “Opening space for good.”

“It is a partnership between government and industry. It is a larger 12 CubeSat and it uses a plug and play standard interface to have a number of experiments on the same CubeSat and it is advancing intelligence to cyber security, across the board that we can do it is one of the biggest satellites that we have launched with LauncherOne. The other payload is studying gases in the atmosphere to look at phenomena [like] volcanic eruptions, said Belts.

Virgin Orbit launches seven satellites Straight Up from the Mojave Air and Space Port, July 2, 2022. (Virgin Orbit photograph)

Straight Up achieved an orbit that no other launch system has reached from the West Coast, according to the company. The target orbit was about about 310 miles above the Earth’s surface at a 45-degree inclination. The company also achieved this orbit on the Above the Clouds mission in January.

The launch was livestreamed in a program with interviews with mission participants, videos of Branson in a tropical place (possibly Necker Island) answering children’s questions about satellites, and a video of singer Paula Abdul at the Mojave Air and Space Port, touring the Cosmic Girl and sitting in the cockpit. The livestream interface had a sign language interpreter.

“It’s great to be back up in Mojave,” said Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit. “We are honored to be supporting and delivering for the U.S. Space Force and the U.S. Dept of Defense at such a critical juncture for national security space, our nation, and the world.”

To accommodate the technology necessary, the passenger seats have been removed from the former airliner in all but the lounge area, which was turned into the mobile Mission Control Center. The control center was where the two launch engineers sat during the mission, Sarah Barnes and Dayle Alexander.

Both flight crewmembers also have other roles at Virgin Orbit. Barnes, senior launch engineer, has been at Virgin Orbit for three years developing Mission Rules, nominal countdown/emergency procedures, and safety/mission assurance risk identification and mitigation, according to Virgin Orbit’s LinkedIn.

Alexander has been with the company since 2018 as propulsion development engineer. She was responsible for engineering multiple components on LauncherOne, including the design and analysis of the second stage engine Newton 4.

Bryan Schaefer, launch director, has been with Virgin Orbit almost seven years, with 50-plus CosmicGirl flight hours and 50-plus flight test hours.

This was the fourth commercial launch for Virgin Orbit.

Straight Up is named for Abdul’s 1988 hit record on the Virgin Records label. Previous mission Above the Clouds is named for a 1998 Gang Starr song featuring Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan, and the Tubular Bells mission by Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album, which was Virgin Record’s first release. The recording of the livestream can be seen on YouTube here.

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