Environmental Review Paves Way for Virgin Orbit Launches From Guam

LauncherOne ignites after being dropped from Cosmic Girl. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An assessment has concluded that Virgin Orbit (VO) could conduct satellite launches out of Anderson Air Force Base on Guam without having any significant impact on the environment.

The Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is a major step forward for Richard Branson’s company, which is seeking a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch from the U.S. island commonwealth. The finding eliminates the need to conduct a lengthier and more detailed environment impact statement.

Virgin Orbit uses a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl to air launch satellites using the LauncherOne rocket. The company currently operates out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and launches over the Pacific Ocean.

“VO proposes to conduct a maximum of 25 launches over the next 5 years (2021-2025), with a maximum of 10 launches in any 1 year during the 5-year period. For example, a potential launch scenario could be the following: 1 launch in 2021, 3 in 2022, 5 in 2023, 6 in 2024, and 10 in 2025,” according to assessment.

“Under the proposed action, VO would perform integration, mating, propellant loading operations, and takeoff and landing operations on Andersen AFB; no construction or ground-disturbing activities would occur and there would be no change to existing infrastructure on Andersen AFB,” the document added.

“Air pollutant emissions below 3,000 feet (ft) would be of short duration during carrier aircraft operations at Andersen AFB, including takeoffs and landings,” the document said. “Air pollutant emissions would not result in violations of any regional air quality standards, including the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

“Rocket activities would occur at altitudes above 35,000 ft above ground level, in the atmospheric layer of the stratosphere. Pollutants that are released in the stratosphere do not mix with ground level emissions and do not have an effect on ground level air pollutant concentrations in any local area,’ the report added.

The assessment concluded that airspace closures would result in minimal increases in emissions as planes were rerouted. It reached a similar conclusion concerning the rerouting of marine traffic. The periodic takeoffs and landings of Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 would not increase noise levels on Guam to any significant degree.

Anderson Air Force Base has two asphalt/concrete runways of 3,413.7 meters (11,200 ft) and 3,208.6 meters (10,527 ft).