Virgin Orbit is gearing up for a third launch this year — and an even busier 2022.
The company aced its second spaceflight in less than six months last Wednesday (June 30), lofting seven small satellites to orbit on a mission named "Tubular Bells: Part 1," after the first track on the first album ever released by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's Virgin Records.
Virgin Orbit is still analyzing the data from "Tubular Bells: Part 1." But the early returns suggest that the flight was completely nominal, keeping the company on track for one more flight this year, likely in the fall, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told Space.com.
If all goes well with that third flight, the company aims to launch six missions in 2022 and boost the cadence significantly again the following year.
"As we go through next year, we will be hitting the gas, in our production team primarily, just to get some more rate, and ramping up to at least double that [launch rate] in '23," Hart said.
Virgin Orbit uses a 70-foot-long (21 meters) rocket known as LauncherOne, which is capable of lofting 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms) of payload to Earth orbit. LauncherOne lifts off beneath the wing of a carrier plane known as Cosmic Girl, which drops the rocket after reaching a predetermined location and altitude.
This air-launch system provides flexibility, efficiency and responsiveness that has helped Virgin Orbit carve out a place in the competitive small-launch market, company representatives have said. (Fellow Virgin Group company Virgin Galactic, which is gearing up to launch Branson and several other people on a milestone suborbital flight this weekend, also uses an air-launch system.)
Both of Virgin Orbit's successful spaceflights to date have lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California. But the company will expand its geographic portfolio soon; it plans to launch missions from both Guam and England next year, Hart said.
In addition, Brazil recently selected Virgin Orbit to fly from Alcântara Launch Center, on the country's northern coast. The company is also in serious discussions to lift off from Japan, Australia and "half a dozen other countries," Hart said. "It's really an exciting time."
Over the longer haul, he added, Virgin Orbit aims to have multiple 747 carrier planes stationed at various spots around the world. Such an expanded infrastructure would enable even higher launch rates, which is something that Virgin Orbit wants to achieve.
"We would like to be launching every week, or more," Hart said.
Virgin Orbit also plans to evolve and upgrade its launch system, allowing the delivery of payloads to higher Earth orbits, the moon and other planets, he added. In fact, a few years ago, the company formed a consortium with Poland-based satellite company SatRevolution (two of whose Earth-observing satellites went up on "Tubular Bells: Part 1") and researchers from multiple Polish universities, with the goal of launching a cubesat mission to Mars in the next few years.
"We want to be part of the space economy, and we want to be an accelerator, to help this transformation that's going on take place," Hart said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com 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.