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ExoTerra, Virgin Orbit to Develop Solar Electric Upper Stage with NASA SBIR Funding

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 1, 2021
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LauncherOne ignites after being dropped from Cosmic Girl. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

The solar electric propulsion upper stage opens a path to cis-lunar space, GEO, and beyond for Virgin Orbit’s small satellite customers

LITTLETON, Colo., June 1, 2021 (ExoTerra Resource PR) — NASA has awarded Littleton, CO-based ExoTerra Resource a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award for the firm’s solar electric propulsion upper stage, currently under development in partnership with California-based launch services provider Virgin Orbit.

The upper stage will be able to deliver 150 kg of payload to cis-lunar orbit and 180 kg to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), as well as enable exciting interplanetary missions — opening up a path to space beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for small satellites.

“ExoTerra is excited to work with NASA and Virgin Orbit to enable microsatellites and micro-landers to reach GEO, the Moon and interplanetary destinations from responsive small launch vehicles. We believe this capability will open up opportunities for rapid, affordable missions throughout the inner solar system and GEO,” said ExoTerra’s CEO Michael VanWoerkom.

Virgin Orbit is enthusiastic to serve as a commercial infusion partner with ExoTerra on this upper stage program, as the company is pushing technology forward to provide the most flexible launch services in the world. The team is working both internally and with partners like ExoTerra to provide a full suite of capabilities for customers interested in sending high-performing payloads to LEO, deep space, and everything in between.

“This award falls squarely on our development roadmap. It’s an exciting technology that we’re looking forward to integrating with LauncherOne in order to better serve customers across a broad set of communities: scientific, academic, government, commercial, and more,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “Small satellites have become powerful tools for business, research and education, and they too deserve an affordable, flexible route to space beyond just LEO.”


Virgin Orbit builds and operates the most flexible and responsive satellite launcher ever invented: LauncherOne, a dedicated launch service for commercial and government-built small satellites. Designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, LauncherOne rockets are air-launched from our modified 747-400 carrier aircraft – allowing us to operate from locations all over the world in order to best serve each customer’s needs. To learn more or to apply to join Virgin Orbit’s talented and growing team, visit


ExoTerra Resource, LLC is a rapidly growing small business focused on producing solar electric propulsion modules and microsatellites. Its Halo line of micro Hall Effect Thrusters deliver high efficiency propulsion for missions ranging from CubeSat to Smallsat scale. ExoTerra’s experienced team of engineers can tailor customized bolt-on propulsion modules or SEP systems for a wide range of satellite platforms. ExoTerra systems are slated to fly on several missions with NASA, DoD and commercial customers in the next year. To learn more, visit

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