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Virgin Orbit announces deals for upward of 30 launches, preps for final mission of the year

Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket is delivered to Mojave Air and Space Port for a December mission. Photo courtesy of Virgin Orbit

Innovative small satellite launch service provider Virgin Orbit, based in Long Beach, has announced two deals for a combined 30 launches in the coming years. The announcements came as the company prepares for its final launch of 2021 next month.

In early November, Virgin announced it entered into a memorandum of understanding with ANA Holdings—the owners of Japan’s largest airline—for 20 flights of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket. The Japanese company plans to provide funding and support for the missions to launch from Japan’s Oita Airport.

“Virgin Orbit offers something no other launch company can,” ANA Executive Vice President Koji Shibata said in a statement, “and that capability will be extremely valuable to the growing space industry in Japan and throughout the region.”

The terms of the agreement call for ANA and several of its partners to fund the manufacturing of mobile ground-support equipment that will prepare the Virgin Orbit system for flight from existing runways at Oita Airport, turning the facility into a LauncherOne-ready spaceport as early as the end of 2022, according to the announcement.

Similar to the United States, the number of space startups in Japan has been increasing since 2015, driven by increased investment and government activities meant to accelerate the private sector, according to ANA. The LauncherOne will provide increased flexibility for the “booming commercial ecosystem for space in Asia,” which currently only has ground-based launch capabilities, the company said.

“We are elated to be partnering with such a talented and honored firm to move space launch forward and serve the rapidly growing need for launch,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in the announcement. “We look forward to collaborating with ANA to foster the ongoing transformation of the space economy.”

On Nov. 17, Astroscale, a Japan-based private orbital debris removal company, announced it also entered into a memorandum of understanding with Virgin Orbit for as many as 10 missions. Astroscale is planning dozens of missions over the next decade to advance space sustainability and on-orbit satellite servicing.

The two companies are exploring areas of cooperation related to policy and regulation, space debris removal, government partnerships and launch, according to the announcement. The partnership also includes the study of a potential joint Global Responsive Satellite Servicing capability, storing Astroscale payloads at LauncherOne spaceports for quick deployment and promoting U.S.-Japan and U.S.-U.K. cooperation for responsive launch capabilities out of Oita, Japan and Cornwall, U.K.

“The space industry is on the cusp of a new era, with flexible and responsive launch and satellite servicing an emerging reality,” Astroscale founder and CEO Nobu Okada said in a statement. “This partnership with Virgin Orbit will bring value to these rapidly developing sectors, not just for technology development, but for business and regulatory innovations as well.”

Virgin Orbit recently joined the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Services Operations (CONFERS), an international industry group representing the on-orbit servicing ecosystem. Astroscale already is an active member of the organization.

“Virgin Orbit is a like-minded company that is revolutionizing the way we launch and access space while maintaining a commitment to space sustainability,” Nobu said.

The two major announcements come as Virgin Orbit is preparing for its third and final mission of 2021, dubbed “Above the Clouds.” A fully assembled rocket has been transported from the firm’s Long Beach factory to the Mojave Air and Space Port, where it is undergoing pre-flight preparations, including being mated with Virgin Orbit’s customized Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl.

The launch, which is targeted for the first week of December, will carry satellites for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Polish company SatRevolution. The DOD is launching several research and development satellites from across multiple government agencies for experiments in space-based communication and in-space navigation.

SatRevolution is launching two nanosatellites—the SteamSat-2 and STORK-3, which will join Earth-observation satellites STORK-4 and 5 that were placed in orbit in June. SteamSat-2 is a technology demonstration of water-fueled thrusters for in-space propulsion.

The mission also includes a university payload sponsored by NASA.

“[The mission] is an important step forward in achieving our goal to provide an affordable, accessible and reliable route to low-Earth orbit for customers around the world,” Hart said in a statement, noting that the company plans to double its number of launches next year. “All of us at Virgin Orbit are excited to continue to share our progress with the space community here in California as we gear up for even bigger things to come globally in 2022.”

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