Virgin Orbit ready for first night launch

WASHINGTON – Virgin Orbit says it is ready for a nighttime launch for the US Space Force as it tries to get into a more frequent rhythm of building and launching vehicles.

Virgin Orbit executives said at a June 28 briefing that their LauncherOne system was ready for its fifth orbital launch attempt, a mission dubbed “Straight Up” by the company. The Boeing 747 aircraft serving as the launch pad is expected to take off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 1am on June 30.

The only problem, said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, was airport infrastructure which he said was damaged during a thunderstorm last week, which he described only as “one of the standard assistance systems for a commercial runway.” He added that there are “solutions” if the system cannot be repaired in time.

The customer for the mission is the US Space Force, who named it STP-S28A. It carries seven payloads for the Space Test program, mainly cubes for scientific and technological demonstrations. The aim of the launch is to place the payloads in a 500-kilometer orbit at a 45-degree inclination, the same orbit as the previous LauncherOne mission in January.

That previous launch, and all previous LauncherOne missions, took place in daylight. The nighttime launch, Hart said, isn’t powered by payload requirements. “It’s expanding the envelope and going through operations for nighttime missions because we have a few on our books,” he said. “We want to make sure we do them in our backyard here in Mojave first.”

Hart confirmed that, following the launch of Straight Up, the next LauncherOne mission will be the first from the UK, flying from Spaceport Cornwall. That launch, a joint mission for the British Ministry of Defense and the US National Reconnaissance Office, is now expected in the “September period,” Hart said. Previously, the company predicted that the launch would take place in August.

That schedule is contingent on Virgin Orbit receiving a launch license from the UK government, as well as a separate license for Spaceport Cornwall. “It is the first time a space launch license has been obtained in the UK,” he said, while that license was granted by the Civil Aviation Authority. “They’ve been quite involved with our experts and made sure they understand the system.”

He added that there is “enormous interest up to the minister and beyond in the UK” at the launch. “Everything is going in the right direction for Cornwall.”

Straight Up will be the second LauncherOne mission of the year. Hart said the company maintained earlier forecasts of four to six launches this year, but will update that in its next earnings call, scheduled for August.

Although nearly a year and a half has passed since the first successful LauncherOne mission in January 2021, Virgin Orbit has been slow to ramp up its launch activity and has only made two new launches since then, both successful. Hart attributed that to the growing pains of transitioning from development to surgery.

“You have two competing goals. One is to just build more of the same and increase speed, which is very important, and the other is to make any changes needed or desired to increase margin or expand performance or capabilities ,” he said. “Virtually all programs go through that.”

Hart said the company is seeing improvements in efficiency and costs through that process. “We’re seeing the right trends and the right things happening in the system, and now it’s just a matter of turning the crank and accelerating.”

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