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  • By Joseph Meyers

The billionaire space race is coming to Guam

Sir Richard Branson’s satellite launch company, Virgin Orbit, will use Guam as the second site for its upcoming LauncherOne small satellite launch service. “With its remote location and close proximity to the equator, Guam serves as an excellent base of operations from which the company’s unique 747-launched rocket can efficiently serve all inclinations, a boon to the rapidly expanding small satellite market.” the company said in a statement on April 10.

While positioning itself as a low-cost option for customers of all small satellites, Virgin Orbit has formed Vox Space as a subsidiary company specifically to address the security concerns and protocols of launching national security assets through the service on the LauncherOne vehicle.

Guam has been in the running as a Virgin Orbit’s launch site since late last year when then Gov. Eddie Calvo announced that the airport has been conducting feasibility studies on launch services.

Like its sister companies, Virgin Orbit is branding itself as a hip, modern and affordable alternative to the stuffy, bloated and expensive competition. In its promotional material, the company touts its affordability and speed multiple times. VP Will Pomerantz has said traditional launches are in the $50 million range and take several years, but that they are trying to get that down to the $12 million range within months.

Unlike traditional satellite launches, Virgin Orbit uses a modified 747 aircraft that carries the LaucherOne rocket under its left wing— between the fuselage and the engines — and can take off like a regular airplane from a regular airport. The rocket is then released from the aircraft and ignited at high altitude. This eliminates the need for specialized launching sites like in Florida or California. It’s a launch technology that was spearheaded by Orbital Sciences Corp. in the 1990s with its Pegasus Rocket, which has had dozens of successful launches from various platforms.

This is a similar approach that the late Paul Allen’s space company Stratolaunch is seeking to utilize. Although Stratolaunch is on a bigger scale with a slower timeline.

Just this month, Stratolaunch test flew the world's largest airplane for the first time. The two-year-old Virgin Orbit has already test flown its aircraft four times, with the LauncherOne vehicle fixed under the wing last year. And they are on track for their first actual test launch of rocket later this year.

The 747 carrying the rocket has been named “Cosmic Girl,” in the typically whimsical style of Branson’s companies, and has the company’s livery.

Unlike other space startups from other entrepreneurial billionaires like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, Branson’s company isn’t literally shooting for the Moon or Mars, nor does it use reusable rockets (although the aircraft is obviously reused.) But it aims to revolutionize the space industry in a more down-to-earth fashion.

Virgin Orbit states on its website “From connecting rural communities to monitoring climate change, our customers are using space to drive lasting positive change back on Earth. We’re enabling space veterans to do new missions in new ways, while also turning dreams into a reality for students, gung-ho entrepreneurs, and everyone else who never thought they’d be able to reach orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is pushing for shared launches from multiple customers to keep costs down.

With the potential of a new microsatellite market opening up with advent of the CubeSat, this might be a market whose time has come.

With an advertised total payload to low Earth orbit of 450 kgs, they are firmly planting the LaucherOne as serving the small lift market. While their sister company Virgin Galactic is in direct competition for the space tourism market with Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is in a totally different and lighter class than SpaceX’s Falcon rockets.

While service is planned to start on Guam next year, and has the U.S. Pacific Air Forces’ support for use of Andersen Air Force Base for launches, A.B. Won Pat International Airport is in the process of obtaining an operator’s license from the FAA’s office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Globally, there are about a hundred satellite launches a year.

As Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said this is indeed “a rare opportunity for our island to be front and center of a groundbreaking space industry.”

Joseph Meyers is a pilot. He lives in Tamuning. Send feedback

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