WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit successfully delivered four U.S. military satellites to low Earth orbit on June 30 as part of the company’s second successful launch of the LauncherOne rocket.
While most space launches start with the rocket standing vertically on a pad, VOX Space, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, is one of a growing number of launch providers that takes its rockets up into the sky via aircraft before launching them midair.
For this latest launch, Virgin Orbit’s 747 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, flying out over the Pacific Ocean before finally releasing the rocket. The rocket then ignited and propelled itself to about 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, where it delivered the satellites.
This was LauncherOne’s second successful launch, the first being a demonstration launch in January. This mission was a rideshare, carrying four U.S. Defense Department satellites, two optical satellites for SatRevolution and a military satellite for the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
The rideshare space for the four U.S. government satellites was acquired as part of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, which secures commercial launches from nontraditional partners through the Defense Innovation Unit as part of the Space Test Program.
While the U.S. Space Force has not released details on the four cubesats, it noted the STP-27VPA mission’s goal was to launch “four research and development satellites from multiple DoD agencies to demonstrate advanced space technologies.”
This was the first collaboration between the Space Force and new launch provider Virgin Orbit, but it won’t be the last. The Space Force awarded the company a $35 million task order in April 2020 for Space Test Program-S28, a mission to place 44 small satellites in low Earth orbit over the course of three launches.
That task order was issued as part of Orbital Services Program-4 — an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract awarded to eight companies by the Space and Missile Systems Center in 2019. OSP-4 is a Defense Department initiative to leverage the commercial small launch market for government payloads, with launches taking place 12-24 months after task orders are issued. The Air Force expects to launch 20 missions over a nine-year period under OSP-4.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.