Virgin Orbit has announced a new partnership with the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. A new RAF project, named ARTEMIS, has selected Virgin Orbit for launch services beginning as early as late 2020.
The goal of ARTEMIS (not to be confused with the American human spaceflight program of the same name) is to demonstrate responsive launch of small satellites to support the RAF and allied forces. The program was created to make use of commercial innovation in order to operate in space quickly, in response to an “evolving space landscape.” ARTEMIS missions will be procured with very short notice: as little time as a week prior to launch. This differs from standard launch procurement timelines which usually extend over years of planning.
These missions will utilize Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, and take advantage of their Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl. The air-launched system offers several benefits, such as flexible launch sites, access to any orbital inclination, and weather avoidance. Air launch enables agile launch capabilities not offered by other systems, which are often constrained to ground based launch sites with limited inclination options and frequent weather challenges.
Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne are planned to operate from a variety of launch sites, including Mojave Air and Space Port in California, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Guam, Cornwall Spaceport in the UK, Italy, and Japan.
These capabilities were developed by Virgin Orbit to meet the needs of commercial customers. “But we’ve found it has enormous advantages for government customers,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “Ultimately, we are hopeful that by demonstrating the capability to quickly and easily deploy and replace satellites in Low Earth Orbit we will be helping to remove the incentive for any nation to invest the money in harming another nation’s satellite.”
Virgin Orbit will be a part of Team ARTEMIS, a coalition of allied nations and commercial companies. Another member of the team is Surrey Satellite Technology, which will build a constellation of small satellites to be launched aboard LauncherOne. The constellation will act as an “Operational Capability Demonstrator” to exhibit this new responsive launch capability.
Air Vice-Marshal ‘Rocky’ Rochelle, Chief of Staff of the Royal Air Force, described the need for a rapid and flexible launch capability: “If a satellite in orbit can no longer perform its function, or if a new need emerges, we need to launch within days, if not hours. And it’s not sufficient to launch to just any orbit; we need to place the satellite into the orbit where it is needed.” Rochelle hopes the ARTEMIS program will ensure that the RAF can make use of Virgin Orbit’s commercially developed capabilities.
The UK Ministry of Defense has committed £30 million in order to accelerate the ARTEMIS program. An RAF test pilot is also being sent to Virgin Orbit to aid integration of the LauncherOne system into RAF operations. The pilot may eventually serve as flight crew aboard Cosmic Girl.
The UK is not the only nation pursuing a rapid launch capability. The United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is conducting the DARPA Launch Challenge, which will see three companies attempt to conduct two launches from two launch sites, with just days notice. Virgin Orbit is one of those companies, competing with Vector and Astra Space.
Virgin Orbit has been steadily progressing towards the debut of LauncherOne, including the recent milestone of a successful drop test. An inert LauncherOne vehicle was carried to altitude by Cosmic Girl, and successfully released over Edwards Air Force Base in California. Now, LauncherOne teams are aiming to complete final assembly of the first orbital vehicle this month, preceding a rigorous testing and rehearsal program prior to the first orbital launch later this year.