Virgin Orbit will return to flight as soon as late 2020 with a second demonstration mission aimed at dropping a space-bound LauncherOne rocket from the wing of a 747 plane named Cosmic Girl. The second orbital flight test will include NASA payload this time with 11 small satellites onboard for deployment.

What happened

The company conducted its first orbital flight test in May. After a clean LauncherOne rocket release for the Cosmic Girl 747 wing, the mission was soon terminated due to an anomaly during flight. Virgin Orbit shared new details about what went wrong during the first demonstration mission today:

Soon, we were able to identify the cause of the failure that ended our first Launch Demo: a breach in the high-pressure line carrying cryogenic Liquid Oxygen (LOX) to our first stage combustion chamber due to a component failure. Without a supply of oxidizer, that engine soon stopped providing thrust, ending our powered flight and ultimately the test itself. […]

Now, we’re putting the finishing touches on that investigation; and while we aren’t quite done, the major findings and the corrective actions are clear — and we’re well under way with fabricating new parts and putting those actions into play.

A smooth ride

The demonstration flight earlier this year may not have resulted in orbital flight for LauncherOne, but Virgin Orbit was able to pour over the data collected from each completed step of the test flight and learn more about the characteristics of their approach to spaceflight.

One of the datasets that pleased us the most from our first Launch Demo was what we saw in terms of the vibrations that satellites riding on our rocket will experience. Our structural dynamics engineers are by nature a fairly conservative group, and have been appropriately cautious with all of their analyses, especially when it comes to our customers’ precious cargo. Our analysts need proof before they will remove uncertainty. Last year, they updated their projections based upon our flight test campaign; now, thanks to the insight earned from our Launch Demo, they have further reduced our random vibration environment predictions. After years of under-promising on that front, we’re pleased now to state with the confidence only afforded by flight data that we’ll provide our customers a gentle ride.

Virgin Orbit says the team is now ready for the next mission that is being planned for as soon as later this year.

NASA payload

With the second Virgin Orbit Launch Demo approaching, NASA has decided to include 11 small satellites onboard through the space agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. The development gives Virgin Orbit a nod of confidence from NASA while recognizing the risks involved in demonstration missions.

Not too long after our Memorial Day test flight, we called NASA to inform them that our upcoming rocket would be used for our Launch Demo 2 mission, which we anticipated would move their mission to the next rocket on our manifest. NASA, however, was quick to remind us of the fundamental goals of the NASA Venture Class Launch Services program, through which they purchased this launch. Our colleagues at NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) were glad to have the insight into our plans and appreciated the offer to fly another test prior to their mission, but also assured us that they were ready to get their payloads onboard our Launch Demo 2 flight.

The team was both proud and honored by the thought of flying NASA on our next mission, but we didn’t say yes right away. We wanted to be sure we fully understood the risks involved. So, we completed a boatload of analysis, looking at our conclusions from our investigation and our expectations for the next flight in sum. A few weeks later, we landed on a plan.

NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative focuses on connecting students and academics with lost cost launch services to conduct science experiments and demonstrate new space technologies.

The LauncherOne payload will include these 10 CubeSat missions:

  • PolarCube – University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado
  • MiTEE – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • CACTUS-1 – Capitol Technology University, Laurel, Maryland
  • Q-PACE – University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida
  • TechEdSat-7 – NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
  • RadFXSat-2 – Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
  • EXOCUBE – California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California
  • CAPE-3 – University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, Louisiana
  • PICS – Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
  • INCA – New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Each mission includes a dedicated CubeSat with the exception of PICS which includes a pair of CubeSats.

Virgin Orbit expects to share more details about the upcoming Launch Demo 2 mission closer to the flight test date.

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