Following the first successful launch of LauncherOne in January, Virgin Orbit is aiming for their next mission to lift off in June. While the launch campaign is underway, the small satellite launch provider continues to secure additional launch sites around the world for expending launch operations, adding their newest site in Brazil.
In a ceremony held at Brasília Air Base, in the capital of the country, the company was one of those qualified to proceed to the contracting and operating phase of its rockets at the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA). Virgin Orbit’s goal is to use the airport’s military base as a mobile operations center, increasing its mission cadence and serving more customers.
LauncherOne Flight Three targeted for June
In January, the LauncherOne rocket successfully reached orbit with ten NASA satellites on board. The Launch Demo 2 mission was Virgin Orbit’s second orbital launch attempt, following an unsuccessful maiden flight in May 2020.
With demonstration missions complete, the company is now gearing up for their third launch, targeted to occur no earlier than June. The mission has been named “Tubular Bells, Part One,” after the first album recorded by Virgin Records.
On board will be multiple payloads from government and commercial customers. Three CubeSats from the United States Department of Defense, under the mission designation STP-27VPA, will be launched as part of the Space Test Program.
Also on board will be the Brik II satellite, built by Innovative Solutions in Space for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Brik II will be the Netherlands’ first military satellite, serving primarily as a 6U CubeSat communications testbed.
Finally, two commercial satellites for Polish company SatRevolution’s STORK constellation will be launched on the mission. STORK-4 and 5 will be the first two of 14 3U CubeSats to be launched for the optical Earth observation constellation.
The satellites will be deployed into circular 500 kilometer orbit, inclined 60 degrees. The mission, like both LauncherOne flights beforehand, will be conducted out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the first of several launch sites Virgin Orbit has been developing or LauncherOne operations.
A New Home for Cosmic Girl
On April 28, the Brazilian Air Force Command and the Brazilian Space Agency announced the companies selected to operate space activities at an event that counted on several authorities, such as the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovations and the only Brazilian astronaut, Marcos Pontes, in addition to representatives of companies and ambassadors of the countries of origin.
The selection process started in 2020 and was completed with four companies that will operate in different parts of the launch center, with emphasis on Virgin Orbit, for being the most recent member of the orbital launchers’ club, after achieving orbit in January 2021.
Chosen to operate at the airport, the company will have a base of operations in a privileged location, which will facilitate more efficient orbital insertion and, consequently, greater payload performance from the LauncherOne rocket. Because it is located about two degrees from the Equator, the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA) allows launching to equatorial orbits with greater ease, which translates into a great increase in efficiency for rockets launching to low inclination orbits such as geostationary orbits.
Despite the advantages, Virgin will need to overcome many difficulties in the region, such as the lack of infrastructure both at the airport, which will have to be modernized to receive the company’s Cosmic Girl Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft, and in the vicinity of the base, as it is a very poor municipality that lacks basic health services, basic sanitation and connection with the city of São Luís.
The launch center itself has limited access to the internet, besides the need for travelling by helicopter to get to the region faster than the about three hours of travel using a ferry boat and the roads of the interior of the state of Maranhão.
The company’s objective will be to move all the equipment necessary for the operation of LauncherOne together with Cosmic Girl, using the airport only as a provisional base, allowing for final preparations for launch, as well as refueling activities and eventual mission scrubs before return to the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, United States.
The balance for Virgin Orbit tends to be positive if it manages to make a favorable agreement with the Brazilian government, which will require the company to invest in the modernization and improvement of infrastructure on the ground, in addition to payments for the use of the base. Furthermore, there is a social commitment to quilombola communities living in the region, which are formed by descendants of fugitive slaves and who have lived in the surroundings of the launch center for centuries, which has already generated many conflicts between government officials and human rights groups that seek to preserve the culture and traditions of these peoples.
After many setbacks and major errors in its space program, Brazil opens its territory to the operation of private companies. With the permission granted to Virgin Orbit, the largest country in Latin America will finally be able to carry out an orbital launch and get a slice of the multi-billion dollar space market, which is forecasted to become a trillion dollar market in the coming decades.
Up to now, the country has launched only sounding and suborbital rockets, lacking a broader and more consistent project for an orbital launch program. There was an attempt with the Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS), which ended in a tragic accident days before launching, killing 21 people after a rocket explosion inside the VAB. Since then, every attempt of the country to create new orbital rockets has been unfounded.
But after signing the Technological Safeguards Agreement with the United States in 2019, the country obtained authorization to launch rockets with American components guaranteeing the protection of its intellectual property. With these new partnerships, Brazil’s space agency is open for business and preparing to lift off.
(Lead photo of Cosmic Girl at the Mojave Air and Space Port – via Jack Beyer for NSF/L2)