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  • Writer's pictureBy Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Virgin Orbit anticipated to launch satellite from Guam this year

Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, is anticipated to debut its proposed five-year operation on Guam this year, following its maiden air launch from its home state Sunday.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket soared into orbit during the company’s second launch demonstration from California's Mojave Air and Space Port Sunday, inaugurating its commercial operations after successfully deploying 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program.

As for Guam, the Federal Aviation Authority is evaluating Virgin Orbit’s proposal to conduct 747 carrier aircraft operations from Andersen Air Force Base and send LauncherOne rocket over the Pacific Ocean to transport small satellites into a variety of low earth orbits.

“VO is proposing to conduct 25 launches over the next five years (2021-2025), with a maximum of 10 launches per year in any one year over the five-year period,” FAA stated in a document related to Virgin Orbit’s license application.

Virgin Orbit's proposed project on Guam was posted on Federal Register on Oct. 19, and the comment period ended on Nov. 16. Report on FAA's final action on the company's license application was currently not available to the public as of this writing.

"The FAA is updating the draft environment assessment with comments received during the public comment period and is continuing to evaluate the license application. The FAA will make an announcement when both processes are completed," said Steve Kulm, spokesman for FAA.

Based on VO’s tentative schedule for Guam, about seven to 10 launches will be conducted each year during the five-year period. There will be one launch in 2021; three in 2022; five in 2023; six in 2024; and 10 in 2025.

According launch description, the carrier aircraft with the mated LauncherOne rocket would take off from Runway 24R at AAFB and fly south to the designated drop point approximately 75 nautical miles south-southwest of Guam.

LauncherOne would be carried to an altitude of approximately 35,000–40,000 ft MSL where it would be released. The carrier aircraft would then immediately pull away and return to Runway 6L at Andersen AFB.

“As part of the licensing process, VO has entered into a Letter of Agreement with Guam Center Radar Approach Control, Oakland ARTCC, Air Traffic Control System Command Center Space Operations, and Andersen AFB 36th Operations Group to accommodate the flight parameters of LauncherOne,” FAA said.

“For all missions, the FAA and the operators take steps to reduce the airspace closure durations as a successful mission unfolds. First, the launch operator plans to conduct its rocket release for an air launched system at the beginning of its launch window.”

Virgin Orbit first announced its flight plans for Guam in 2019. “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, 2019.

Speaking about Sunday's debut launch in California, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the company just sprang open a new gateway to space.

"That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity," Hart said in a statement.

"Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier,” he added.

According to a press release from the company, Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a customized 747-400 dubbed Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 10:50 a.m. and flew out to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles south of the Channel Islands.

At the conclusion of the flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats into the team’s precise target orbit, marking a major step forward for Virgin Orbit in its quest to bust down the barriers preventing affordable and responsive access to space, the company said.

Describing Sunday's launch as a "historical first," Virgin Orbit said no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had previously reached space.

“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit," said said Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson.

"This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit. I can’t wait to see the incredible missions Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good,” he added.

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