Virgin Orbit sign SITAEL contract for LauncherOne satellite launch

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Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne has signed an agreement to launch a SITAEL satellite developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The all-electric propulsion microsat demonstrator called µHETsat will be air-launched on a rocket carried under the wing of Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrier plane.

Virgin Orbit Launch:

The new air-launch system is yet to conduct its maiden flight, although progress towards that milestone is picking up the pace.

Just this month, Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 (747-41R) series aircraft (previous registration number G-VWOW), arrived at the company’s Long Beach facility in California after initial retrofitting in San Antonio, Texas – via a flow called “Maintenance D”.

Chosen via an impressively clean operational history and excellent maintenance record, the aircraft undertook its first flight on 29 September 2001 and was delivered to Virgin Atlantic Airways on 31 October 2001.

She spent 14 years in service with Virgin Atlantic Airways primarily servicing the company’s London to San Francisco via New York City route until 29 October 2015.

The plane was officially delivered to Virgin Galactic on 12 November 2015 and re-registered as N744VG.

The main modification involves the ability to support the 24,947.58 kg (55,000 lb) LauncherOne rocket and its associated hardware.

LauncherOne will be capable of placing a 300 kg payload into a sun-synchronous orbit and a 450 kg payload into an equatorial orbit – all for the same rough price of $10 million (USD). Notably, the company has begun to claim payloads of “up to 500 kg”, potentially relating to an increase in performance capabilities.

Carried by Cosmic Girl to around 35,000 feet, LauncherOne will enjoy the ability to launch polar and sun-synchronous missions from approximately 80.4 km (50 miles) off the west coast of Los Angeles, California, and a similar distance off the east coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, for equatorial missions.

2016-06-30-132140The first stage of the LauncherOne is the NewtonThree (N3) engine, which is a 73,500 lbf engine running with RP-1 and LOX. The second stage utilizes the NewtonFour (N4) engine that sports 5,000 lbf of vacuum thrust.

The system will only become financially viable via a healthy order book, with Virgin Orbit noting on Friday one such order, as it was selected to launch a SITAEL satellite developed in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

Virgin Orbit and SITAEL signed the launch service agreement at the 31st AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellite.

SITAEL will launch its µHETsat via LauncherOne, a technical demonstration of a new electric propulsion system (based on the Hall Effect Thruster (mini-HET) concept) for ESA and ASI.

“As a small satellite customer, we are very excited for our innovative SITAEL technologies to get the flexibility and service of a primary payload on a dedicated small launch vehicle by Virgin Orbit,” noted SITAEL Chief Executive Officer Nicola Zaccheo.

“The satellite, developed in partnership with Italian Space Agency and European Space Agency, is the first all-electric micro satellite ever in space, validating both the SITAEL bus (S-75 platform) and SITAEL low power Hall Effect Thruster (HT100). SITAEL is pleased to take advantage of Virgin Orbit’s unique capabilities.”

The µHETsat satellite’s launch mass is expected to be less than 60 kg, with about 15 kg allocated to mini-HET P/L (including Power Processing Unit, fluidics, tank and xenon propellant).

“Opening access to space is an incredible opportunity to bring together governments around the world with commercial enterprises. Virgin Orbit is proud to apply our commercial solutions and innovation with SITAEL to support the European Space Agency and Italian Space Agency,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said.

“Collaborative efforts like ours will enable cost-effective access to Low Earth Orbit missions and beyond.”

No launch date was provided in the announcement, but it is expected to be one of the opening launches during the initial phase of commercial operations that are set to begin in 2018.

(Images via Virgin Orbit and SpaceTechExpo, Derrick Stamos for NSF (L2) and Nate Moeller for NASASpaceFlight.com and astro95media.com).

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