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Virgin Orbit launches cubesats on second operational mission

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully launched seven cubesats June 30 in the second operational mission of the air-launch system.

Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 9:50 a.m. Eastern. It flew to its drop point over the Pacific Ocean off the coast from Southern California, releasing the LauncherOne rocket at 10:47 a.m. Eastern.

The rocket’s two stages performed as expected, placing the upper stage into orbit. After a coast phase, the upper stage reignited its engine for a second burn and then released its payload of seven satellites about 40 minutes after first-stage ignition into 500-kilometer orbits at an inclination of 60 degrees, although the company didn’t provide formal confirmation of successful deployment until about two hours later.

“The team did a phenomenal job,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said on the company webcast of the launch during the upper stage’s coast phase. “Every single countdown has its own personality. This one had a couple of little, tiny turns along the way. The team just jumped on those, resolved them quickly.”

The seven satellites on the “Tubular Bells: Part One” mission come from three customers. Four unnamed satellites are from the Defense Department’s Space Test Program, under a contract that is part of the DOD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative.

Two satellites, STORK-4 and STORK-5, were built by SatRevolution, a Polish smallsat developer planning a constellation of satellites for medium-resolution multispectral imagery. Virgin Orbit announced June 29 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with SatRevolution that could lead to launches of future satellites.

The seventh satellite is BRIK 2, a six-unit cubesat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force developed by Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space. The satellite, the first for the Dutch military, will test communications technologies and demonstrate how cubesats can support Dutch military operations.

This was the third LauncherOne mission and the second consecutive successful one. After the first LauncherOne mission, a demo flight without payloads, failed to reach orbit in May 2020 because of a ruptured propellant line, the second launch in January successfully placed 10 cubesats into orbit on a NASA-funded mission.

Hart said in a June 29 call with reporters that he expected to perform at least one more LauncherOne mission this year, again out of Mojave. He said Virgin Orbit will accelerate operations in 2022 with six launches expected, including flights from Guam and England.

“Today is Virgin Orbit’s day,” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said on the company webcast. He, like Hart, was in Mojave to watch the takeoff of Cosmic Girl on the mission. “It’s now hopefully going to become almost routine.”

“There are so many people that need satellites in space,” he added, “and we’re going to be able to deliver.”

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