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Virgin Orbit Adds Guam as Launch Site

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 10, 2019
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Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 performs its first captive carry of LauncherOne. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

LONG BEACH, Calif., 10 April 2019 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company, announced today that the Pacific island of Guam will become an additional launch site for the company’s LauncherOne service. With its remote location and close proximity to the equator, Guam serves as an excellent base of operations from which the company’s unique, 747-launched rocket can efficiently serve all inclinations, a boon to the rapidly expanding small satellite market. Most excitingly, the new location enables LauncherOne to deliver more than 450 kg to a 500 km equatorial orbit.

The addition of Guam to that list enhances the flexibility of Virgin Orbit’s launch operations, adding a low-latitude site with clear launch trajectories in almost all directions, giving Virgin Orbit’s customers unparalleled control over where and when their small spacecraft are deployed.

Officials at US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) have issued a letter of support for Andersen Air Force Base to host launches and other exercises with LauncherOne and its dedicated carrier aircraft—a critical step en route to a first launch from the island, which could occur in as little as a year’s time. Additionally, the largest commercial airport on the island, A.B. Won Pat International Airport, has begun the process of seeking its launch site operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, in order to serve as a future launch site for Virgin Orbit.

“Launching from Guam gives us easy access to every orbital inclination our customers need. With our air-launched system, we will fly out as any other airplane, move out to sea and release our rocket. Our minimal footprint coupled with Guam’s natural launch location results in a great match. With the continued support from Governor Leon Guerrero and our partners in the DOD, we are well on our way towards providing new launch opportunities for small satellites that have waited too long for their ride to space, and we’re thankful to the local government in Guam for their enthusiasm and support,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart.

“This is a rare opportunity for our island to be front and center of a groundbreaking space industry,” said Governor Lou Leon Guerrero. “Guam has always been a rare gem known for great weather, a beautiful landscape and warm people, and now we can add space transportation to that list.”

Lieutenant Governor Joshua Tenorio adds, “We are keen to partner with Virgin Orbit to generate a new space industry in Guam and advance our local economy, as well as spur new STEM education opportunities for our youth to take us into the future.”

In addition to the launch site’s primary appeal to commercial missions, VOX Space also anticipates using Guam and other launch sites to provide responsive launch capability to the national security space community. As part of a series of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) with the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Superiority Directorate located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, CA, among others, VOX Space is developing concepts for how commercially developed space capabilities can partner with and complement the U.S. Department of Defense’s existing mobility, transportation, and space launch systems

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system is now in the final phases of testing, after successfully demonstrating all major assemblies with multiple flight vehicles in production. Having just completed its fourth captive carry flight with a test rocket mated to the wing, Virgin Orbit is on track to conduct its first orbital test flight later this year.

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 new locations around the world, launching each satellite from the optimal location. This mobile approach to launch substantially reduces the expense required for infrastructure at each launch site.

In addition to the Mojave Air and Space Port—the California launch site that will be home to the company’s first orbital launch in the middle of this year, as well as subsequent launches to high inclination orbits—other spaceports both new and established have announced that they are working to prepare themselves for future missions of LauncherOne, including the Launch and Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Spaceport Cornwall in the United Kingdom, the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport in Italy, and others.

5 responses to “Virgin Orbit Adds Guam as Launch Site”

  1. TheBrett says:

    I know air launch kind of has a bad reputation, but it really does offer some conveniences in terms of launch time and location. It’d be even better if we tried out carrying the launch stage up “dry” and fueling it in mid-air.

    • Larry J says:

      When StratoLaunch was working on their giant aircraft to carry a liquid-fueled rocket, I was hoping they’d carry LOX tanks in one fuselage side and fuel tanks in the other. That would allow them to take off with a dry rocket and fuel it in flight. A fully fueled rocket is a very large bomb should there be a problem on takeoff that required an abort or emergency landing. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems fueling in flight would be safer. It would also allow you to keep the cryogenic tanks topped off to replace boiloff. I think they did top off the X-15 LOX tank before launch back in the 1960s.

  2. duheagle says:

    Now we just have to hope Guam doesn’t capsize and sink if this big honkin’ airplane lands on it.

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