Smallsat Launch Vendors Prepare for First Missions of 2021 – Spaceflight Now


Virgin Orbit technicians complete work with the LauncherOne vehicle payload fairing for the Launch Demo 2 mission, which is expected to orbit 10 NASA-sponsored CubeSats. Credit: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson

Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab teams are gearing up for their first missions of the year in the coming days, with Virgin’s aerial rocket slated for its second demonstration flight and Rocket Lab’s Electron booster set to launch a small communications satellite belonging to Germany.

The second test flight of the Virgin Orbit air-dropped LauncherOne vehicle is scheduled for Wednesday, January 13 at the earliest. Ten CubeSats from US universities and a NASA research center are aboard the rocket, which will be released by the Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 carrier plane. the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.

Rocket Lab’s first flight in 2021 is scheduled for a 10-day window on Saturday, January 16. A two-stage Electron launcher will carry a European technology demonstration satellite into orbit from Rocket Lab’s base in New Zealand for OHB Group, an aerospace company based in Bremen, Germany.

Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is looking to prove its commercial LauncherOne rocket after its first orbital launch attempt in May failed seconds after it fell from the 747 jumbo jet. The company said a rupture in a liquid oxygen supply line to the LauncherOne’s first-stage engine caused the failure seconds after the engine was ignited.

The LauncherOne can deliver up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of payload in a low-altitude equatorial orbit, or up to 661 pounds (300 kilograms) in a 310-mile (500-kilometer) high polar orbit, according to Virgin. Orbit.

Virgin Orbit is looking to join Rocket Lab as the only company in a new wave of privately funded small satellite launch providers to successfully place a payload into orbit. Astra, another launch startup, successfully launched a rocket into space from Alaska last month, but the upper stage prematurely came to a halt just below orbital speed.

Rocket Lab first successfully reached orbit in 2018. The company’s Electron family of rockets have been launched 17 times to date, with two failures, deploying nearly 100 small satellites for commercial customers, NASA and the American army.

File photo of a Rocket Lab Electron booster on its launch pad in New Zealand before a previous mission. Credit: Rocket Lab

The launch of the 18th Electron, scheduled for January 16 at the earliest, will launch a small communication satellite for OHB.

The seven-minute launch window on Jan. 16 opens at 2:38 a.m. EST (7:38 a.m. GMT), according to Rocket Lab. The mission will take off from Rocket Lab’s Private Spaceport Launch Complex 1A on the Mahia Peninsula, located on the North Island of New Zealand.

Rocket Lab is headquartered in Long Beach, California, but carries out the final assembly and rocket launch operations in New Zealand. Later this year, Rocket Lab plans to launch its first mission from a new facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, and will send a small NASA-funded spacecraft to the moon.

Rocket Lab’s launch base teams in New Zealand are also completing construction of Launch Complex 1B near the company’s first launch pad. The company says the first launch of the new platform in New Zealand is also slated for later this year.

Rocket Lab dubbed the first mission of 2021 “Another One Leaves the Crust”.

The OHB group, which builds small and medium-sized satellites, bought the launch of Rocket Lab through its subsidiary OHB Cosmos, according to Rocket Lab.

The OHB payload is a “unique communications microsatellite that will allow specific frequencies to support future services from orbit,” Rocket Lab said in a statement. OHB and Rocket Lab have not released any additional details about the satellite, which was built by OHB divisions in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, said the launch would take place within six months of signing the contract with Rocket Lab and OHB, a relatively quick timeframe for a launch service agreement.

“By flying as a dedicated mission on Electron, OHB and its mission partners control the launch timing, orbit, integration schedule and other mission parameters,” Beck said in a statement.

Rocket Lab does not plan to recover the first Electron propulsion stage on the mission scheduled for January 16. The company picked up an Electron first stage for the first time after a November launch, a first step in the eventual reuse of Electron boosters to augment the Rocket Lab. launch rate.

Rocket Lab’s seven Electron flights in 2020 set a record for the company, which claims it has a “busy” launch schedule from three stations in 2021.

Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 carrier plane, named “Cosmic Girl”, sits on the ramp at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The LauncherOne vehicle is suspended under the left wing of the aircraft. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit, meanwhile, is looking to join Rocket Lab in the small satellite launch market.

A dedicated launch on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket sells for around $ 12 million, according to company executives. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which has a slightly lower lift capacity than Virgin’s LauncherOne, costs around $ 7 million per mission.

The LauncherOne rocket development effort began as a project of sister company Virgin Galactic, which focuses on the suborbital space tourism market.

Virgin Galactic says it first researched the LauncherOne concept in 2007, and development began in earnest in 2012. Engineers in 2015 scrapped initial rocket-drop plans from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and launched the development of a redesigned system using a 747 jumbo jet drawn from the Virgin Atlantic commercial airline fleet.

Based in Long Beach – near the Rocket Lab headquarters – Virgin Orbit was formed in 2017 as a spin-off of Virgin Galactic. Virgin Orbit investors include Branson’s Virgin Group and Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund.

Virgin Orbit’s first demo launch in May carried a small spherical satellite named Starshine 4, a passive payload covered with 1,000 small mirrors polished by students as part of an educational program nearly two decades ago.

The 40-pound (18-kilogram) Starshine 4 satellite was supposed to be launched on a space shuttle mission, but it was struck after other payloads took priority as the last shuttle flights focused on the completion of the International Space Station.

The Starshine 4 payload was launched for free on Virgin Orbit’s first test flight, but the satellite never made it into orbit.

NASA is the customer of the second test flight of LauncherOne, which Virgin Orbit calls “Launch Demo 2”. Virgin Orbit has delayed the mission from December due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

The US space agency signed a contract with Virgin Galactic, the former parent company of Virgin Orbit, in 2015 through the Venture Class Launch Services program. NASA set up the VCLS program to put small research nanosatellites into orbit and help give business to startups developing small satellite launchers.

Rocket Lab also received a VCLS contract in 2015. The launch vendor successfully completed the VCLS mission in December 2018, when an Electron mission orbiting 13 NASA sponsored CubeSats.

The 10 CubeSats aboard Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission were built by university students from California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee, and Utah. NASA is paying for the launch of the CubeSats built by the university.

Another NASA CubeSat mission, named TechEdSat 7, from the agency’s Ames research center is also aboard the LauncherOne rocket.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.

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