GLOUCESTERSHIRE, England, 19 July 2019 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company, announced today that it has been selected by the U.K.’s Royal Air Force (RAF) to provide responsive launch capabilities for a small satellite constellation Operational Capability Demonstrator through a new RAF project named “ARTEMIS.”
First announced by Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt yesterday at the Air and Space Power Conference, the ultimate goal of ARTEMIS is to demonstrate the utility of small satellites and responsive launch to provide information to the RAF and allied personnel on operationally relevant timelines. Secretary Mordaunt confirmed that the department has already committed £30 million ($33.6 million) to fast-track the ARTEMIS program.
ARTEMIS will rapidly demonstrate responsive and resilient space launch and space operations. Pending approval by the US government, Virgin Orbit will support a Team ARTEMIS as a member of the partnership between a coalition of allied nations and a team of commercial companies announced today at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. Virgin Orbit’s role in Artemis will be to launch satellites built and operated by other team members, with the first launch coming as soon as late 2020.
To fully demonstrate the responsiveness newly available to the RAF, each of these launches will be conducted with short call-ups, with Virgin Orbit possibly receiving as little as a week’s notice prior to the desired take-off. This is vastly faster than today’s standards for launches which must typically be planned years in advance and which operate from launch sites that are only capable of accessing a narrow range of orbits, making it nearly impossible to guarantee access to any given orbit on short notice.
By using a customized 747-400 aircraft as its “flying launch pad,” Virgin Orbit gains the ability to quickly transport the entire launch site to optimal locations around the world, thus establishing a new standard for agility and flexibility.
The RAF is spearheading the Artemis program to challenge traditional procurement timelines and to harness commercial innovation, demonstrating the capability to operate in space at the “speed of relevance” for the evolving space landscape. Team ARTEMIS will collaborate to build, launch, and operate a series of Surrey Satellite Technology-built spacecraft from the U.K., establishing a sovereign capability that complements capabilities planned by Australia, Canada, and the U.S.
“We’ve built a launch system to address commercial needs, but we’ve found it has enormous advantages for government customers” said Dan Hart, President and CEO of Virgin Orbit. “We’re thrilled to be working with the RAF and team ARTEMIS on this campaign, and to go out and actually demonstrate something that would have been a dream only a few years ago. Ultimately, we are hopeful that by demonstrating the capability to quickly and easily deploy and replace satellites in Low Earth Orbit we will be helping to remove the incentive for any nation to invest the money in harming another nation’s satellite.”
“As the space environment grows more contested and congested, it is no longer acceptable to us to wait years between when we recognize we have a need and when we have a satellite in orbit,” said Air Vice-Marshal ‘Rocky’ Rochelle, Chief of Staff of the Royal Air Force. “If a satellite in orbit can no longer perform its function, or if a new need emerges, we need to launch within days, if not hours. And it’s not sufficient to launch to just any orbit; we need to place the satellite into the orbit where it is needed. Thankfully, with commercially developed capabilities like what Virgin Orbit has done with air launch and what our other team ARTEMIS members have done in their fields, this is now in the realm of possibility. This program will help us ensure we know how to make use of those important capabilities to support the RAF’s mission.”
Secretary Mordaunt also announced this week that the RAF intends to send one of its test pilots secondment to Virgin Orbit, pending regulatory approvals. This pilot, to be selected shortly by RAF officials, would provide key operational insights into the best ways to integrate Virgin Orbit’s system and its unique capabilities into the RAF’s planning and operations. They may also ultimately serve as flight crew for missions on the company’s 747-400 carrier aircraft.
Virgin Orbit recently completed a key drop test of its LauncherOne vehicle, the last major step in the development program of its novel launch service. Later this month, Virgin Orbit will finalize assembly of its first orbital rocket before handing it off to the company’s operations team for a rigorous series of checkouts and rehearsals, leading up to LauncherOne’s first launches to space later this year.