Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne in mid-air for the first time during a drop test in July 2019

“Start Me Up” Amber-1 & Others | LauncherOne

Lift Off Time/Launch Window
(Subject to change)
December 14, 2022 23:45 UTC (TBC)
Mission Name
“Start Me Up” / Amber-1 & Others
Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)
Virgin Orbit
Customer
(Who’s paying for this?)
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)
Rocket
LauncherOne
Launch Location
Cosmic Girl” over the Atlantic Ocean, flying from Spaceport Cornwall, Newquay, Cornwall, UK
Payload mass
~100 kg (220 lbs)
Where is/are the satellite(s) going?
~550 km Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO)
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
No (rocket), yes (aircraft)
Where will the first stage land?
Cosmic Girl will return to Spaceport Cornwall
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
No, this is not a capability of LauncherOne
Are these fairings new?
Yes
How’s the weather looking?
TBD
This will be the:
– 1st orbital launch ever from Western Europe
– 1st launch of LauncherOne outside the USA
6th launch of LauncherOne
– 61st air-launched orbital rocket flight
– 180th orbital launch attempt for 2022 (TBC)
Where to watch
If an official livestream is available, we will link it here!

What Does All This Mean?

Virgin Orbit is sending several payloads to orbit onboard its air-launched rocket, LauncherOne, from the UK for the first time. This will be the first orbital launch from anywhere in Western Europe. Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome is in Eastern Europe, not Asia.

This means, among other things, that satellites built in the UK will no longer have to be shipped abroad to launch. The space sector directly employs 47,000 people in the UK.

What Is “Start Me Up”?

“Start Me Up” is the first orbital launch from the United Kingdom. Although the UK did develop its own orbital launch capability with the Black Arrow program, that rocket flew from the Woomera test range in Australia. The mission name is a tribute to the Rolling Stones song (previously used for the “launch” of Windows 95). Virgin Orbit names all of its missions after song titles that are on the Virgin Records catalogue.

The UK Space Agency and the USA National Reconnaissance Office are jointly managing the mission. Obtaining the necessary regulatory permissions to launch a US-developed rocket from UK soil has been a major effort over recent years.

Licensing

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority has issued its first ever spaceport license to Spaceport Cornwall on November 16th. The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) has already issued a marine license to the Virgin Orbit satellite launch project.

The license issued by MMO covers the 2022 launch, the first of its kind in the UK. As there is material to be deposited into the sea that will be loaded in the UK, the activity requires a marine license from MMO, as required by The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of one launch in 2022 from the UK and approximately two launches per year over the next 8 years (January 2023-December 2030).

Local journalists understand that a launch date is likely to be announced for two weeks after a launch license is granted. The CAA said in a press release that it is in very advanced stages with Virgin Orbit on its applications for launch and range licenses.

The flight begins with a conventional departure of Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” from Spaceport Cornwall. This is the alternative name for Newquay Airport, formerly a Royal Air Force base (RAF St Magwan). The G7 summit meeting in the UK recently used this airport in June 2021.

EventTime (UTC)
Public livestream starts22:20 (L-0)
Cosmid Girl take-off from Spaceport Cornwall22:40
Rocket deployment23:45
Cosmi Girl returns to Spaceport Cornwall00:45 (L+1)
Confirmation of payload deployments01:15 – 01:30
Timeline for flight and launch events (L-0 subject to change)
Flight profile of N744VG “Cosmic Girl” during a test flight, December 2nd, 2022 (Credit: Flight Aware)

Cosmic Girl flew into the UK on October 11. The LauncherOne rocket itself flew in a few days later on October 14, onboard a Boeing C-17 Globemaster. The Ground Support Equipment traveled in a separate flight from the rocket and arrived on the same day as the rocket itself.

Payloads

SatelliteDimensionsBuilt By / Operated ByDescription
IOD-3 AMBER6U CubeSatClyde Space / Horizon TechnologiesTracking maritime vessels
Prometheus-22 x 6U CubeSatsIn-Space Missions LtdMonitoring radio signals including GPS
CIRCE2 x 6U CubeSatsBlue Canyon TechnologiesSee below for more information
DOVER3U CubeSatOpen Cosmos / RHEA GroupGNSS-based positioning, navigation and timing
ForgeStar-03U CubeSatSpace ForgeReturnable and reusable test platform
AMAN3U CubeSatSatRevolution / ETCOEarth observation demonstration
STORK-63U CubeSatSatRevolutionEarth observation + payload hosting

IOD-3 AMBER

AMBER is a partnership between the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult agency and Horizon Technologies. The satellite has been built by AAC Clyde Space in Glasgow, Scotland.

It is expected to be the first of 24 satellites that will provide Maritime Domain Awareness to users. The system uses specific patented technology to geolocate and demodulate radio signals from ships all over the world.

The data gathered and provided to governments of many countries will be used for tracking and prevention of illegal fishing, smuggling, trafficking, piracy, and terrorism. Indonesia is said to lose $200M per year due to unlicensed fishing in its waters, for example.

IOD stands for In-Orbit Demonstration. The system is designed to assist in tracking vessels which have disabled their Automatic Identification Signals (AIS).

The satellite is a 6U CubeSat. It has a mass of 8 kg (18 lb).

AMBER radio frequency captures (Credit: Horizon Technologies)
AMBER radio frequency captures (Credit: Horizon Technologies)

Prometheus-2

The two Prometheus satellites undergoing testing (Credit: In-Space Missions)

This mission consists of two 6U CubeSats, Prometheus 2A and 2B. They have been manufactured by In-Space Missions. They will be placed into an orbit of around 550 km.

The satellites will be owned by the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), on behalf of the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD). They were designed jointly by In-Space Missions and Airbus Defence and Space.

They provide a test platform for MOD science and technology activities both in space and on land at the Hermes ground station at DSTL’s site at Portsdown, UK. They will be used for monitoring radio signals including GPS.

Using Software Defined Radio technology, the satellites will be used for research purposes as opposed to defense intelligence.

The satellites each have a mass of 8.5 kg, and the dispenser for each has a mass of 6.4 kg. So, the total mass for this payload is around 30 kg (66 lb).

CIRCE

The mission consists of two 6U CubeSats (CIRCE-1 and CIRCE-2).

This payload is a miniaturized space weather platform, hosting three payloads. CIRCE stands for Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment.

The satellites will be deployed to an orbit of 555 (+/- 10) km LEO, with an inclination of 90 (+/- 5) °.

The satellite bus is provided by Blue Canyon Technologies. They will be operated jointly by DSTL (UK) and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO, USA).

The payloads have been developed for DSTL by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (part of the University College London), the University of Bath, and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

CAD models, CIRCE, Virgin Orbit (Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies)
CAD models of CIRCE (Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies)

DOVER

DOVER satellite, Virgin Orbit  (Credit: Open Cosmos)
DOVER satellite (Credit: Open Cosmos)

This payload, named after the Dover Strait (the narrowest part of the English Channel) is a 3U CubeSat. It was designed by space company Open Cosmos and built by the RHEA Group.

The satellite was partly funded by the UK Space Agency. It will transmit signals designed for use in Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT). This is a term that is used with Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as GPS.

The UK government has expressed an interest in developing its own PNT capability. After leaving the EU, the UK lost access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS) service provided by the European Union’s Galileo system. This service would have been extremely useful to emergency services.

The satellites will be deployed to a 550 km Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO).

ForgeStar-0

This satellite is the first to be developed in Wales, UK. Space Forge, the manufacturing company, is based in Cardiff, the Welsh capital city.

It is an ambitious platform, designed to demonstrate on-orbit manufacturing. Examples include crystallization, removal of contaminants during manufacturing, and access to low temperatures without cryogenics.

Learn more about Space Forge in this video from the Angry Astronaut. ForgeStar-0 is focused on reentry and will not be demonstrating any on-orbit manufacturing on this mission.

A novel aspect of the ForgeStar platform is that it is designed to perform its manufacturing tasks in orbit, and then return the materials to Earth using a fully-reusable (not ablative), deployable heat shield and specialized capture system. This is likely to involve carbon thermal protection tiles similar to what was used on the Space Shuttle orbiter. Everyday Astronaut understands that the heat shield is not inflatable, unlike the recent LOFTID mission.

One application area is to assist in development of larger wind turbines than are currently feasible. This is due to current limitations in size being based on the strength of the bolts used in assembly. Stronger bolts manufactured in microgravity would permit larger, more efficient wind turbines.

Other areas of interest are to create larger, stronger gas turbine parts so that planes use less fuel, and the creation of more efficient batteries for either electric aircraft or cars.

ForgeStar-0 was developed at pace (in less than 5 months) to fly before the previously planned ForgeStar-1 satellite, as a test bed for the reentry technology.

Artist's impression, ForgeStar satellite, Virgin Orbit 
 (Credit: Space Forge)
Artist’s impression of a ForgeStar satellite (Credit: Space Forge)

AMAN

Satellite integration team (Credit: Oman News Agency)
The satellite integration team at Spaceport Cornwall. No image of the satellite itself was available. (Credit: Oman News Agency)

This payload is a 3U CubeSat. It is Oman’s first satellite. It has been built by Polish company SatRevolution (SatRev).

The purpose of the satellite is to demonstrate Earth observation technologies. It will be operated by Omani-based company ETCO.

It forms part of Oman’s project Oman Vision 2040, which is aimed at developing economic competitiveness and social well-being.

ETCO is an Oman-based emerging technology innovator. Data gathered from the spacecraft will be analyzed by TUATARA, a specialist company in advanced AI, data analytics and cognitive technology solutions.

STORK-6

This is a 3U CubeSat built by SatRev of Poland. It joins a constellation of 14 when fully populated.

It features SatRev’s Vision-300 imager which provides a ground resolution of 5 m (~15 ft). This takes up 1U volume on the platform. The other 2U volume is available for use by other customer payloads.

SatRev previously launched STORK-3 and SteamSat-2 on January 13, 2022, also using LauncherOne, on the “Above The Clouds” mission.

STORK-1 and -2 were previously launched also on January 13, 2022, on board SpaceX’ Transporter-3 mission.

STORK-4 and -5 flew on the Tubular Bells, Part One flight of LauncherOne, on June 30, 2021.

STORK satellite, Virgin Orbit (Credit: SatRevolution)
A STORK satellite (Credit: SatRevolution)

What Is LauncherOne?

LauncherOne is a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket that deploys from under the wing of a Boeing 747-400. Its design is a simple, low-cost, expendable vehicle capable of placing satellites into a variety of orbits.

LauncherOne, Spaceport cornwall
LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, UK (Credit: Spaceport Cornwall)

Cosmic Girl

The deployment aircraft, “Cosmic Girl”, is officially registered as N744VG. Formerly a regular passenger aircraft, it flew with Virgin Atlantic for many years. The aircraft’s previous registration was G-VWOW during its 14 years in this service. Virgin Galactic re-registered the aircraft in 2015. Ownership transferred to Virgin Orbit when VO became a company in its own right.

Cosmic Girl, taking off with LauncherOne,Launch Demo, May 2020 (Credit: Virgin Orbit / Pauline Acalin)
Cosmic Girl taking off with LauncherOne under the left wing for the first Launch Demo, May 2020 (Credit: Virgin Orbit / Pauline Acalin)

Boeing designed the 747 to be able to carry a fifth engine to ferry spare engines for maintenance purposes. During launch operations, Cosmic Girl has two pilots in the cockpit and two to three launch engineers in the main cabin.

Virgin Orbit reports that the air launching technique provides a significant performance boost, due to the carrier aircraft traveling at around 500 mph or Mach 0.67, and above the thickest parts of the atmosphere.

Back in late 2019, Will Pomerantz of Virgin Orbit stated in a video interview with the TMRO YouTube channel that live streaming these launches would not be practical. However, starting with their second launch, VO has in fact been able to provide live streams of their launches.

The flight will be led by Matthew Stannard, a Royal Air Force (RAF) test pilot who is on secondment with Virgin Orbit. Deployment of the rocket occurs at an altitude of 35,000 feet (10,700 m). Immediately after deployment, the aircraft pitches up to a 27˚ angle in order to stay clear of the rocket.

Exploded view, LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Orbit)
Exploded view of LauncherOne stages (Credit: Virgin Orbit)
mission profile
Typical Mission Profile (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

LauncherOne First Stage

Size1.8 m / 6 ft outer diameter
Primary materialComposite structure
Propellants6,000 kg RP-1 and 13,200 kg LOX
EngineOne pump-fed Newton Three engine
Performance327 kN / 73,500 lbf thrust (vacuum)
Burn time3 minutes

4 aerodynamic fins at the base of the rocket stabilize flight during the first stage burn.

Full-scale illustrated model, LauncherOne, Science Museum London (Credit: Andy Law)
Full-scale illustrated model of LauncherOne outside the Science Museum in London (Credit: Andy Law)

LauncherOne Second Stage

Size1.5 m / ~5 ft outer diameter
Primary materialComposite structure
PropellantsRP-1 / LOX
EngineOne Newton Four engine
Performance22 kN / 5,000 lbf thrust
Burn time6 minute run time
Second Stage, integration with First Stage (Credit: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson)
Second Stage ready for integration with the First Stage (Credit: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson)

LauncherOne Ground Support Equipment

Virgin Orbit provides its own Transportable Ground Operating System (TGOS), to avoid the need for special technical facilities at launch airports.

Mobile Ground Support Equipment (Credit: Virgin Orbit)
Transportable Ground Operating System (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit is also in the process of arranging for launches from Oita airport in Japan. They are also in discussions with many additional countries to look at increasing the number of international launch locations.

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