On the third straight successful operational mission of its LauncherOne air-launch program, Virgin Orbit launched seven cubesats for three clients into orbit on January 13. At 4:39 p.m. Eastern, Cosmic Girl, the Boeing 747 that will be used to launch LauncherOne, lifted off from Mojave Air and Space Port facility in California. It launched the rocket at 5:52 p.m. Eastern, and it soared to a height of around 500 kilometers in low Earth orbit. Virgin Orbit announced an hour after the rocket’s launch that all 7 satellites had been launched.

In comparison to prior launches, Virgin Orbit relocated a drop point for this one to the west southwest, far out over the Pacific. This allowed the rocket to deploy the satellite into the orbit at a 45-degree slope, which the company claimed was the first time a deployment from a West Coast facility has done so.

During a January 11 conference call with reporters discussing the mission, Dan Hart, who is the current president and CEO of Virgin Orbit, said, “Our ability to reach a 45-degree inclination out of the West Coast boosts significantly the value of a launch out of the West Coast.” That kind of adaptability is unheard of.

Seven smallsats were launched for three customers. The Defense Department’s Space Test Program provided four of the satellites. Two three-unit cubesats make up the PAN (Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation) payload, which will be used to evaluate a rendezvous and docking mechanism. The NASA Ames Research Center’s TechEdSat (Technology Education Satellite) 13 is a 3-unit cubesat designed to test a variety of innovative technologies. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s GEARRS (Globalstar Evaluation and Risk-Reduction Satellite) 3 is a 3-unit cubesat that uses a patch antenna on satellite’s exterior to evaluate communications with Globalstar satellite network.

SatRevolution, which is a Polish smallsat company, provided two of the satellites. SteamSat-2 is going to test water-fueled thrusters created by a British business, SteamJet Space Systems, as portion of its constellation of imaging satellites. Spire Global created the seventh satellite alongside the Findus Venture GmbH and Austrian Space Forum to monitor the orbital debris environment. In December, Virgin Orbit said it introduced the Spire cubesat on late notice as a showcase of its quick launch capabilities.

The specific masses of these seven satellites, as well as the overall mass of the payloads, were not disclosed by Virgin Orbit. The seven satellites are all three-unit cubesats, which have a mass of around five kilograms each.

After deployments in both January and June 2021, this was the 3rd operational flight in less than a year. Those two previous launches were also successful. A propellant line burst seconds after the first-stage engine was ignited, shutting it down, and a demonstration launch in May 2020 ended in failure to reach orbit.

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