Virgin Orbit launches Space Force mission
WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit successfully launched a series of payloads for the US Space Force into orbit during the company’s first nighttime launch early July 2.
Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft, Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 1:49 a.m. Eastern. The aircraft flew to its drop zone over the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego and released the LauncherOne rocket at 2:53 a.m. East.
The rocket entered first orbit and, after a 45-minute coast, the upper stage motor fired again before launching its payload into a 500-kilometer orbit at an angle of 45 degrees.
The launch, dubbed “Straight Up” by Virgin Orbit, was performed under a contract with the US Space Force, which designated the mission STP-S28A. The launch was previously scheduled for June 30, but was scrubbed about half an hour before the scheduled launch when the propellant temperature was outside acceptable limits.
The mission carried seven payloads, mainly scientific and technological demonstrations, organized by the Space Test Program:
- Compact Total Irradiance Monitor (CTIM) is a 6U cubesat funded by NASA and developed by the University of Colorado Boulder. It will test the ability of a cubesat to measure total solar radiation, the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth, with the same precision as larger spacecraft.
- GPX2 is a 3U cube developed by NASA to test the use of commercial components for differential GPS, precision navigation that can be used for future operations in space. The satellite will deploy a two-meter gravity-gradient boom to passively stabilize itself once in orbit.
- Gunsmoke-L contains a pair of 6U cubes built by Dynetics for the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The agency describes the satellites as “tactical space support vehicles” that “assist in all phases of joint forces”.
- The Modular Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance B (MISR-B) mission will use Cubesats “to demonstrate various capabilities and mission effectiveness” to an unspecified agency.
- Nanosat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System (NACHOS) 2 is a 3U cubesat funded by NASA to detect trace gases such as sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. The NACHOS-1 cubesat, using the same instrument, deployed from a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on June 28 after that spacecraft departed from the International Space Station.
- Recurve is a Cubeat mission developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will test adaptive radio frequency technology in a mesh network.
- Slingshot 1 is a 12U cubesat built by The Aerospace Corporation using a bushing from Blue Canyon Technologies. The spacecraft has 19 technology demonstration payloads, including a modular plug-and-play interface.
The launch was the fifth orbital launch for Virgin Orbit overall, and the fourth consecutively successful. All previous LauncherOne missions have taken place in daylight, but this one took place at night, Virgin Orbit executives said in a prelaunch briefing, as a practice for future missions whose orbits require such launches.
Straight Up was Virgin Orbit’s second mission of the year after launching in January. The next launch, expected no earlier than September, will be the company’s first launch from the UK from Spaceport Cornwall. That launch is expected to be Britain’s first orbital launch by a vehicle.
“The success of the Straight Up mission is another exciting milestone on our path to seeing the first satellite launch from UK soil,” Matthew Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said in a statement after observing the launch from Mojave. “We work closely with Virgin Orbit and it was a privilege to witness another successful launch for the team with our partners.”