Virgin Orbit set to launch mission STP-27VPB “Above the Clouds”

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and its 747 carrier aircraft “Cosmic Girl” are scheduled to launch the US Defense Department’s STP-27VPB mission along with three commercial satellites. The launch is scheduled for Thursday, January 13th at approximately 2:00 PM PST (22:00 UTC). Cosmic Girl will take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port before flying out to the launch zone near the Channel Islands off the southern California coast.

The LauncherOne vehicle, making its fourth orbital flight attempt, and the second overall orbital launch of 2022, will be carrying 11 satellites to a 500-kilometer circular orbit inclined 45 degrees to the Equator. This inclination is lower than usual for West Coast launches, and as such Cosmic Girl will be flying further out over the Pacific than usual.  This will allow LauncherOne to reach the lower-inclination orbit without overflying land.

Cosmic Girl carries a LauncherOne rocket during a previous captive carry test. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Cosmic Girl will carry the fully fueled LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, attached to a pylon that uses a hard point Boeing had originally built into that wing for carrying a spare engine. The 747 had this capability because its engines were too large to be carried aboard most freighter aircraft at the time it was originally entered into service. An extra engine could then be ferried on a normal 747 flight if needed.

After Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne reach the intended launch zone over the Pacific, the 747 will complete a circuit around the zone while the rocket’s systems are checked out. If all systems meet launch criteria, the crew aboard Cosmic Girl will proceed to the launch point and release LauncherOne.

Seconds after the drop, LauncherOne will ignite its first stage NewtonThree engine, which uses liquid oxygen and RP-1 as propellants. The rocket will climb on its southeast-bound trajectory before stage separation around the T+3 minute mark.

The second stage, using a similarly fueled NewtonFour engine, will ignite shortly after stage separation. Meanwhile, Cosmic Girl, commanded by chief pilot Eric Bippert and pilots Todd Ericson and Mathew Stannard, will return to its base in Mojave.

Following second stage engine cutoff, LauncherOne will deploy 11 payloads.

LauncherOne being released from Cosmic Girl on a previous flight. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Eight of the satellites on this mission are part of the Space Force’s STP-27VPB mission. These include the Ignis propulsion technology demonstrator, a pair of autonomous docking demonstrator satellites (PAN A/B), and a university payload sponsored by NASA.

The other three satellites are from commercial customers. The Polish company SatRevolution has two payloads onboard this mission: STORK-3 and SteamSat-2. Finally, Adler-1 is flying for Spire Global, in partnership with the Austrian Space Forum and Findus Venture GmbH.

Initially, the “Above the Clouds” mission had been planned to fly the Space Force’s STP-27VPB payloads along with the commercial STORK-3 and SteamSat-2 satellites late last year. However, there was a last-minute payload addition (Adler-1) along with two delays from the initial December 2 launch date, pushing the mission to January 2022.

Several US government agencies, including NASA, are flying payloads under the DoD’s Space Test Program for this flight. The DoD awarded a contract to Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space for the STP-27VPB mission as part of a “rapid agile launch” initiative. This intends to enable demonstrations of commercial space technology for military purposes.

The Adler-1 satellite, built by Spire Global in cooperation with the Austrian Space Forum and Findus Venture GmbH, was announced as part of the “Above the Clouds” manifest earlier in December 2021. It was selected to fly on the mission only 20 days after conversations began with Virgin Orbit. 36 hours after official approval for the mission, the satellite was integrated with the payload stack.

The satellite, measuring 30x10x10 centimeters, will attempt to observe and obtain data on micro space debris to help refine existing models of space debris orbiting Earth.

The Ignis technology demonstrator satellite is a 12-kilogram 6U CubeSat built by Astro Digital of Santa Clara, California. It features a Hall effect ion thruster–known as the Apollo Constellation Engine–along with other attitude and navigation control systems. It is built by Astro Digital of Santa Clara, California.

The STORK-3 satellite is a product of Polish company SatRevolution, a repeat customer of Virgin Orbit’s services. STORK-3 is an Earth observation satellite meant to serve the agricultural sector with medium-resolution imagery from orbit. It will join STORK-4 and STORK-5 Marta, which were launched by Virgin Orbit in June 2021.

Render of the Ignis satellite with solar panel deployed. (Credit: Astro Digital)

SatRevolution is also launching SteamSat-2, which is a tech demonstrator for the UK’s SteamJet Space Systems. This satellite is testing water thrusters for use in satellite propulsion in space.

The PAN A/B satellites are a pair of 3U CubeSats totaling 9 kilograms. These advanced satellites will test several new technologies: magnetic docking, GPS-based docking systems, and new rendezvous and docking algorithms. This is a joint project of NASA Langley Research Center and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and is designated ELaNa-29 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites).

The “Above the Clouds” launch, named to honor the hip hop album Moment of Truth–and specifically the fifth song on that album, “Above the Clouds”–is the first of at least four planned missions for Virgin Orbit in 2022. Virgin Orbit’s recent stock listing on the NASDAQ market, along with a crowded and rapidly changing smallsat launcher market, makes this year especially important for the company’s–and LauncherOne’s–future.

(Lead image: Cosmic Girl at Mojave Air and Space Port before the Above the Clouds mission. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

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