The first night flight of Virgin Orbit’s commercial aerial rocket is scheduled for Wednesday evening off the coast of California, carrying seven small payloads into orbit as part of a mission for the Army’s Space Test Program American.
The mission will be the fifth flight for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket. The company, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, has completed three consecutive successful missions since the first LauncherOne test flight failed to reach orbit.
The fifth LauncherOne mission will be the nightly launch from Virgin Orbit. The company wants to demonstrate its ability to conduct night launch operations before they are needed for future missions. Wednesday evening’s launch is not limited to a specific launch window and could fly day or night, according to Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit.
Launching at night “extends the envelope” of Virgin Orbit’s capabilities, allowing ground crew and flight crew to practice their procedures at night.
“We have some of these (nightly launches) on our books that are needed, and we want to make sure we do them first in our backyard here in Mojave,” Hart said on a pre-release conference call. -launch with journalists.
Virgin Orbit has touted the benefits of its mobile launch system, with the 747 carrier jet capable of hosting missions from conventional airports around the world. Alongside its home base at Mojave Air and Space Port, Virgin Orbit has deals with international governments that could lead to launches in Japan and Brazil, and is in the process of planning ahead for two UK-based launches. United later this year. The company has also completed preliminary planning for future missions from Guam.
The LauncherOne rocket due to be launched into orbit on Wednesday evening will carry seven CubeSat missions sponsored by the US military and NASA. Launch service was purchased from Virgin Orbit through the Army’s Rocket Systems Launch Program, and officials from the Army’s Space Test Program assigned experimental satellites to lift LauncherOne into orbit.
Space Force has awarded Virgin Orbit a $35 million contract in 2020 for three launches carrying payloads from the space test program. The military calls the contract STP-S28, and this week’s mission is known as STP-S28A, the first of three launches under contract with Virgin Orbit.
The two-stage LauncherOne rocket will aim to place the seven payloads – five funded by the military and two by NASA – into a 310-mile-high orbit inclined at 45 degrees to the equator.
The launch window for the STP-S28A mission opens at 10:00 p.m. PDT Wednesday (1:00 a.m. EDT Thursday). A Boeing 747 carrier plane, dubbed “Cosmic Girl” by Virgin Orbit, will carry the 70-foot-long (21.3-meter) LauncherOne rocket aloft from Mojave Air and Space Port, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of the downtown Los Angeles. .
Before liftoff under the 747 carrier aircraft, the two-stage LauncherOne rocket will be loaded with kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, then the ground crew will perform hands-on checks before clearing the mission for departure.
About an hour after departing Mojave, the pilots of the 747 carrier plane will line up on a southeast heading, then place the jumbo jet in a climb at an angle of more than 25 degrees at approximately 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) above the Pacific Ocean. the southern coast of California, southwest of the Channel Islands.
The rocket’s launch point is located about 340 kilometers west of San Diego, further offshore than the drop location of the first three Virgin Orbit missions. The launch point and trajectory for Wednesday night’s launch is similar to Virgin Orbit’s previous launch in January, which also targeted a 45-degree inclined orbit.
Flying in a 45-degree inclined orbit requires launching a rocket to the southeast or northeast, trajectories generally impossible from the west coast of the United States without flying over populated areas.
The rocket’s launch point for Wednesday night’s flight is far enough away to reach 45-degree orbit without flying over populated territory in California or Mexico. The orbit will allow satellites to pass between 45 degrees north and south latitude on each circle around the Earth.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, weighing about 57,000 pounds (26 metric tons) fully fueled, will ignite its NewtonThree main engine about five seconds after the 747 jumbo jet launches.
The main engine will generate 73,500 pounds of thrust during a three-minute burn to propel the rocket out of the atmosphere. The NewtonFour second stage engine will ignite moments after the LauncherOne booster stage is jettisoned, followed by fairing separation from the payload once the vehicle reaches space.
The rocket will reach a preliminary orbit after a five-and-a-half-minute upper-stage firing. A second burn of the NewtonFour upper stage engine – lasting just five seconds – is expected to place the mission’s seven CubeSat payloads into near-circular orbit approximately 54 minutes into the mission.
One minute later, at approximately T+plus 55 minutes, the CubeSat payloads will begin to deploy from the rocket.
Two of the payloads are sponsored by NASA’s CubeSat launch initiative, in which the space agency pays for satellite research and technology demonstration satellite launch services.
One of the NASA-supported missions is the Compact Total Irradiance Monitor-Flight Demonstration, or CTIM-FD, satellite developed at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The briefcase-sized satellite will demonstrate the ability of a CubeSat to house an instrument to monitor total solar irradiance, the total amount of solar energy entering Earth’s atmosphere, helping to cause changes in the climate of the planet.
The CTIM-FD satellite instrument is about one-tenth the mass of sensors of similar capacity flying on larger satellites and off the International Space Station.
The 7.5-pound (3.4-kilogram) GPX2 satellite from NASA’s Langley Research Center will demonstrate off-the-shelf commercial GPS receivers that could be used on future small-satellite missions for near-air autonomous operations , such as formation flying or docking.
Los Alamos National Laboratory’s NACHOS 2 CubeSat also flies on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket. NACHOS 2 will launch a demonstration mission of a new miniature imaging instrument to identify sources of trace gases – natural emissions and air pollution generated by human activity – in the Earth’s atmosphere.
In a planning coincidence, a similar satellite named NACHOS 1 rolled into orbit from a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft earlier this week after leaving the International Space Station.
Hyperspectral imagers from NACHOS satellites have enough sensitivity to connect sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide to specific volcanoes, cities, neighborhoods and power plants, officials said. Hyperspectral imagers were once bulky instruments that needed to be housed by a larger satellite, but NACHOS is the first CubeSat to carry such an imager.
Hyperspectral instruments are tuned to resolve the chemical fingerprints of molecules, in the atmosphere or on the Earth’s surface.
The US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command is also launching the Gunsmoke-L mission on Virgin Orbit’s rocket. Gunsmoke-L is the next in a line of small army satellites designed to support tactical military operations. Details about the Gunsmoke-L mission are classified, but the military said a previous Gunsmoke mission tested the technology to provide timely aerial surveillance imagery to battlefield commanders.
Another CubeSat mission on the LauncherOne rocket is MISR-B, a modular intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payload for US Special Operations Command.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is launching a small satellite named Recurve to demonstrate adaptive radio technology that could more efficiently route data to military forces.
Aerospace Corp’s Slingshot 1 CubeSat. hosts several experiments, including radio communication instruments and a laser transmitter to demonstrate high-speed data links with Earth. The 42-pound (19-kilogram) Slingshot 1 spacecraft also carries an experimental hydrogen peroxide propulsion unit and cameras for Earth imaging and self-inspection.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.