If space is the final frontier, then Virgin Orbit (VOX Space) plans to be the business leading the way. With an interesting and unique design, the company anticipates being able to conduct space missions from numerous locations. This is one of the reasons that the U.S. Space Force recently awarded VOX with a $35 million contract. The contract includes 3 Virgin space flight launches over the next few years in an effort to expand the space domain. But whether these missions prove to be successful is anyone’s guess given that Virgin Orbit is still in testing mode.
The U.S. Space Force plans to actively pursue space for a number of reasons. For one, intentions include the development of a more extensive space communications platform covering the earth. But in order to achieve that, numerous satellites will be required in addition to several rocket payloads. The goal is thus to use a Virgin space flight to facilitate these pursuits delivering materials to low earth orbits. If this proves successful, then development of this proximal space infrastructure may occur more rapidly than anticipated.
“With the space domain more contested than ever, it’s crucial that we find ways to enable those responsible for space security to act quickly and effectively. Ultimately, we believe that affordable and responsive launch helps keep everyone safer—in part by creating a major disincentive for adversaries to work against existing satellites and space systems.” – Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit
The Unique Approach of the Virgin Space Flight
Unlike many other space companies, a Virgin space flight does not attempt to create an entirely new rocket launch system. Instead, VOX uses an adapted 747 airplane as a carrier of a rocket to facilitate access to space. The 747 airplane, named Cosmic Girl, is specifically altered to carry a rocket under one wing. The rocket, named Launcher One, disengages from the plane once in flight and boosts itself into a low earth orbit. In the process, the rocket is capable of carrying satellites and other payloads into space for a variety of purposes. The U.S. Space Force is banking on VOX’s technology and design in helping them achieve their space goals quickly.
In terms of the U.S. Space Force contract, Virgin Orbit is expected to conduct its first launch in October of 2021. This will be its first of 3 launches that will carry a dozen satellites each into low earth orbit. This will be in addition to other orbital payloads that the Department of Defense wishes to pursue as part of its space programs. In fact, the specific program in which the Virgin space flight will be participating is DOD’s Orbital Services Program 4. Its precise mission is to increase space domain awareness while developing low orbital space infrastructures. If VOX launches show success, it is therefore likely that many future contracts with DOD will result.
Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic – Two Distinct Entities
With the announcement that VOX received the U.S. Space Force contract, Virgin Galactic share prices climbed. However, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit are completely unrelated. While Virgin Galactic is publicly traded, Virgin Orbit is privately held. In fact, Virgin Orbit spun off as a separately entity in 2017 and is privately owned by Sir Richard Branson. Thus, while investors may want a piece of the action of the upcoming Virgin space flight, this isn’t likely to happen. Like Elon Musk and other bold leaders in the space field, it would seem Branson wishes to keep VOX to himself for the time being.
Of course, Virgin Orbit is not without its own competitors. Three of the main ones include SpaceX, X-Bow, and Firefly Black. But what is most attractive about the Virgin space flight is its ability to potentially launch from any airport. Because it utilizes a 747, access to a low earth orbit could be pursued any nearly any location. This proximity saves on costs in numerous ways. And it is a reason why Virgin Orbit looks more appealing for this type of launch compared to its competitors. Undoubtedly, this played a role in the U.S. Space Force’s decision to go with Virgin Orbit.
“We’re leveraging no infrastructure from the base itself other than the runway and the allocated piece of tarmac where we can load the rocket and service the rocket. Rather than having to fly out of Florida and perform a big dog leg maneuver to be able to get to an equatorial orbit, we’d rather just fly the airplane to the right latitude and launch.” – Mandy Vaughn, President of VOX Space
Final Preparations Before the U.S. Space Force Launch
While VOX is excited about the U.S. Space Force contract, it’s not quite ready for the first Virgin space flight. Still in the testing phase, Virgin Orbit will next test taxiing capabilities with the 747 carrying the rocket. Subsequently, it will then conduct a demo flight and launch later in 2020 to ensure everything is operational. Assuming all goes well, VOX will then prepare for its inaugural U.S. Space Force launch in the fall of 2021. Thus, potentially, the Virgin space flight schedule could become quite busy after this date if missions show success.
Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has set the company back like it has numerous other businesses. Based in California, Virgin Orbit had to take action relatively early to protect its staff. After a week of sterilization procedures, the company now has 90 percent of its members working from home. And others are fully equipped with personal protective equipment with CDC standards now in place. At present, the first Virgin space flight is still expected to launch as planned. Without question, many are awaiting the launch with great anticipation. Virgin Orbit may well play a key role in ushering in a new era of space exploration and development.