JAN. 12 UPDATE: Our Launch Readiness Review is complete, our hardware looks great, and our customers are ready. We’re following through on the last actions identified at our LRR. Our launch is now targeted for NET Sunday, Jan 17, with additional windows in January if needed.
In our first Launch Demo, we demonstrated the entire prelaunch sequence, flyout, rocket separation and unpowered flight, engine start and first stage powered flight. Now, our team is fired up to build on those steps and demonstrate the rest of the rocket system, including our upper stage, in our Launch Demo 2 mission. Again, we’re poised to collect terabytes of data from LauncherOne as it flies, further enhancing our knowledge and proving out our system’s capabilities.
We’re taking another big first step with this mission too, as we’ll be carrying customers’ satellites on board for the first time. We are immensely grateful to our friends at NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) and NASA’s Launch Service Program (NASA LSP) for what has been an incredibly collaborative team effort. NASA created VCLS to foster the development of new commercial launch capabilities for innovative, risk-tolerant payloads; and working with them has given us the opportunity to learn about their journey while bringing them some of Virgin’s unmatched heritage of customer service, and enabling us both to build upon and enhance future missions.
Being first in line — and what’s more, flying on a demonstration flight — always carries with it a special relationship. It’s been a true honor working with NASA on this mission as we opened the doors to our new payload processing facility, received and processed our first customer spacecraft, verified our integration processes, and more. Having a customer like NASA on board as we realize our vision of creating a new game-changing capability for spacelaunch has been inspiring for the whole Virgin Orbit team.
All along, we’ve been focused, dedicated and driven by the responsibility to get these experimental spacecraft on their way. At the same time, we all understand the risks and uncertainties inherent in flying a demonstration flight. We’re proud to become part of NASA’s long history of taking measured risks to bring new spaceflight capabilities to humankind. That is what Virgin Orbit is all about.
9 CubeSat missions comprising 10 total spacecraft are set to fly on LauncherOne during Launch Demo 2, which will also mark the 20th mission in NASA’s Educational Launch of NanoSatellites (ELaNa XX) series. NASA is using small satellites, including CubeSats, to advance exploration, demonstrate emerging technologies, and conduct scientific research and educational investigations. Nearly each payload on this flight was fully designed and built by universities across the US.
The manifest for this flight includes the following:
- CACTUS-1 — Capital Technology University, Laurel, Maryland
- A 3U CubeSat carrying out two technology demonstrations. The primary payload, TrapSat, is tackling the issue of space debris by using aerogel to capture and profile orbiting microdebris. The mission also includes the first secondary stand-alone payload for a CubeSat, the Hermes module, which demonstrates commanding via Internet as an cost-saving communications and command subsystem for gathering scientific data.
- CAPE-3 – Unversity of Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana
- This educational mission will fly the Smartphone CubeSat Classroom, which allows anyone with a smartphone to set up a ground station with a kit. Interactive educational activities will give students the ability to interact with the CubeSat via an app on their smartphone and use their smartphone to design their own CubeSat experiments.
- EXOCUBE-2 – California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California
- This 3U CubeSat is equipped with a space weather platform that will measure a number of atomic and ionic substances in the exosphere. Knowledge of the composition and the current state of activity in the exosphere can be useful in the prediction of space weather phenomena in order to forecast potential effects on satellite communications and spacecraft performance.
- MiTEE – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
- MiTEE is a series of two CubeSat missions developing the capability to deploy a pico/femto (i.e. very small) satellite-tether system. The missions will allow students to work on a real-world, research-driven mission to assess the key dynamics and electrodynamic fundamentals of a very short tether system for flying pairs of smallsats.
- PICS – Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
- A pair of two satellites, PICS is a technology demonstration of a spacecraft that can perform inspection, maintenance and assembly on another spacecraft. The two flight systems deployed simultaneously will enable the collection of image data from each other as well as the parent spacecraft.
- PolarCube – University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado
- PolarCube is a small radiometer that will collect Earth surface and atmospheric temperature data. Its purpose is to collect brightness temperature spectra at a low cost, useful for applications like storm cell observations and the study of sea ice fractions near the poles.
- Q-PACE – University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida
- Q-PACE will facilitate long-duration microgravity experiments to study collisions in the early protoplanetary disk. The CubeSat will observe low-velocity collisions between cm-scale and smaller particles, addressing the decades-old question of how bodies grow past the meter-size barrier into planetesimals that can become planets through gravitational accretion.
- RadFXSat-2 – Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
- RadFxSat-2 has two mission objectives: to study the effects of space radiation on a specific kind of Static Random Access Memory (SRAM) for the purpose of validating single-event error rate predictions, and to test a design for two-way amateur radio communications.
- TechEdSat-7 – NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett, California
- The overall goal of TECHEDSAT is to evaluate, demonstrate, and validate two new technologies for future experiments aboard smallsats. After 60 days in orbit, the satellite will be commanded to quickly re-enter the atmosphere utilizing a new device called an Exo-Brake.
After a rigorous investigation, then modification and test program — both alongside some true luminaries in the launch business — we’re delighted to be back on the runway in Mojave just 7 months after our first demonstration. And this is despite the complexities of working in a global pandemic!
As we’ve outlined in previous blogs, our team has performed a battery of critical tests to give us the best chance possible for success. Throughout these activities, we’ve seen the benefits from all of the learning and operational refinements that came from moving through Launch Demo 1.
As our team works with a new level of experience and efficiency, milestones have been falling like dominoes, with all pre-launch activities to date looking picture-perfect from beginning to end.
Before we recently mated the rocket, our flight crew took Cosmic Girl out for one final test flight to simulate the mission. Not only did this flight provide valuable practice for both our pilots and launch engineers, it also gave us the opportunity to send simulated rocket data back and forth from the plane to mission control on the ground.
We also recently conducted a cryo-load on the rocket after mating it to the plane, fully loading the rocket with both fuel and LOX at super-cold temperatures. The system health report was excellent.
Like any other rocket, the last piece of the puzzle before we fly is wet dress rehearsals, which essentially combines all of the operations from the dry run with propellant loading. If those go well, we’ll be ready to fly out and light this candle.
We know you all are just as excited as we are to see LauncherOne fly again, so we’ll keep you in the loop as Launch Demo 2 approaches. We’ll also post real-time updates as the mission progresses — just follow us on Twitter (@Virgin_Orbit) so you don’t miss a thing. And as always, we’ll follow up with photos and videos as quickly as we can.