Virgin Orbit Could Launch Polish Cubesat Mission to Mars in 2022

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket falls away from its carrier plane during the company’s first-ever drop test on July 10, 2019.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket falls away from its carrier plane during the company’s first-ever drop test on July 10, 2019. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit via Twitter)

Polish scientists are developing a first-of-its-kind cubesat mission to Mars that could launch as early as 2022.

The Poland-based satellite company SatRevolution, researchers from multiple Polish universities, and Richard Branson's launch company Virgin Orbit have formed a consortium that aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Red Planet in the next few years.

The mission will follow in the footsteps of NASA's twin MarCO (Mars Cube One) craft, the first-ever interplanetary cubesats. Those briefcase-sized probes flew by Mars in November 2018, beaming home data about the touchdown of the agency's InSight lander. But the Polish effort will break new ground with its commercial component, project team members said.

Related: Success of Tiny Mars Probes Heralds New Era of Deep-Space Cubesats

"This mission will galvanize the Polish space sector and mark its position on the international arena," SatRevolution co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Grzegorz Zwoliński said in a statement yesterday (Oct. 9). "The project will accelerate the development of small satellites and of lightweight space science instrument technology. We want Poland to be 'the go-to' country for small interplanetary spacecraft."

The project could ultimately launch up to three Mars missions, with the first one possibly getting off the ground as soon as 2022.

The consortium's work to date suggests that spacecraft weighing 110 lbs. (50 kilograms) or less could conduct a variety of valuable science work at Mars, from imaging the planet, to studying its atmosphere, to hunting for evidence of subsurface water, team members said.

For comparison, each of the MarCO cubesats weighed 30 lbs. (13.5 kg). MarCO-A and MarCO-B — nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, respectively, after characters in the 2008 Pixar film "WALL-E" — were technology-demonstration craft whose main mission involved showing that cubesats can explore deep space. 

The duo did that in spades, supporting InSight's landing, snapping photos of Mars and even collecting some data about the planet's atmosphere. But they flew right by the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018, so a mission that scrutinizes Mars from orbit — if that is indeed what the Polish craft will do — would push cubesat exploration another step forward.

Virgin Orbit will be tasked with getting this little craft off the ground. The company, part of Branson's Virgin Group, is developing a small-satellite-air-launch system, which uses a rocket (called LauncherOne) dropped at altitude from a 747 aircraft (known as Cosmic Girl).

Virgin Orbit doesn't have any launches under its belt yet, but that should change soon. The company is preparing its first orbital rocket for a test flight, which could come before the end of the year.

"Virgin Orbit is thrilled to join this consortium, as it speaks directly to our mantra of 'opening space for everyone,'" Stephen Eisele, Virgin Orbit's vice president of business development, said in the same statement. "Given Poland's strong foundation in engineering and sciences, government and academia in the country would benefit greatly from the increased access to space afforded by flexible, dedicated launch platforms like LauncherOne."

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.