Virgin Orbit plans first private satellite mission to Mars
As an aspiring launch provider with a unique approach, Virgin Orbit has made some impressive steps toward lifting small satellites into Earth orbit with the help of its modified 747, but its business mightn’t end there. The company has today revealed plans to carry out the first commercial satellite mission to Mars, where a new breed of tiny probes could further our understanding of the Red Planet.
Central to Virgin Orbit’s ambitions is a modified 747 called Cosmic Girl, which it has adapted to be able to carry its LauncherOne rocket into the air. That rocket would fire up its own engines at an altitude of around 35,000 ft (10,700 m) and blast its payload into space, which could be satellites as small as a loaf of bread and as large as a fridge. Cosmic Girl would then come down to land and be prepared to go again.
In the last year or so we have seen the Virgin spin-off company edge towards commercialization, carrying out Cosmic Girl’s first captive carry flight and then in July this year, releasing the LauncherOne rocket from the airborne plane for the first time. The company has previously said it hopes to launch commercial services in the UK by 2021, but soon after its reach could extend much, much further.
The new plans revolve around a collaboration with satellite company SatRevolution, along with scientists and engineers from nearly a dozen Polish universities. Only four organizations have made it to Mars before, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), NASA, ESA and the USSR's space agency, Roscosmos. This new consortium is tasked with designing and carrying out the “world’s first dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars.” But if Virgin Orbit beats the likes of SpaceX to the punch, it could become the first private mission to Mars, period.
Virgin Orbit says the game is changing when it comes to what kind of spacecraft can be used to study Mars, pointing to NASA’s MarCO CubeSats that launched last year as examples of how smaller probes can also have a part to play.
SatRevolution will be charged with designing and manufacturing the CubeSats, having sent Poland’s first commercial nano-satellite to Earth orbit earlier this year. Virgin Orbit, meanwhile, says it is currently preparing its first orbital rocket for test flights later this year, and that it expects the consortium’s first launch could take place as soon as 2022, with capacity for up to three Mars missions.
“We have already seen the incredible utility of small satellites here in Earth Orbit, and we’re thrilled to start providing dedicated launches to deep space,” says Virgin Orbit’s Vice President of Business Development Stephen Eisele. “We’re proud to enable a new wave of Polish creativity and innovation in space.”
Source: Virgin Orbit