Virgin Orbit has announced that it will work with the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force to provide responsive launch capabilities.
The new RAF project is called “ARTEMIS” and was announced by Penny Mordaunt, secretary of state for defence, at yesterday’s Air and Space Conference in London.
ARTEMIS’ main goal is to show just how useful satellites and responsive launch can be to both the RAF and to allied personnel. At the conference, Ms Mordaunt confirmed that the Ministry of Defence has already committed £30 million ($33.6 million) to fast-track the ARTEMIS programme.
The programme will demonstrate responsive and resilient space launch and space operations. Pending approval by the United States government, Virgin Orbit will support team ARTEMIS as a member of the partnership between a coalition of allied nations and a team of commercial companies. Virgin Orbit’s crucial role in ARTEMIS will be to launch satellites built and operated by other team members, with the first launch expected in late 2020.
“We’ve built a launch system to address commercial needs, but we’ve found it has enormous advantages for government customers,” said Dan Hart, president and CEO of Virgin Orbit. “We’re thrilled to be working with the RAF and team ARTEMIS on this campaign, and to go out and actually demonstrate something that would have been a dream only a few years ago. Ultimately, we are hopeful that by demonstrating the capability to quickly and easily deploy and replace satellites in Low Earth Orbit, we will be helping to remove the incentive for any nation to invest the money in harming another nation’s satellite.”
To show just how responsive the launches can be, each of these launches will be conducted with short call-ups, with Virgin Orbit possibly receiving as little as a week’s notice prior to the desired take-off. Currently launches are planned years in advance and must operate from launch sites that can access only a narrow range of orbits. This means that prior to Virgin Orbit’s involvement, it was nearly impossible to guarantee access to any given orbit at short notice.
“As the space environment grows more contested and congested, it is no longer acceptable to us to wait years between when we recognize we have a need and when we have a satellite in orbit,” said Air Vice-Marshal 'Rocky' Rochelle, chief of staff of the Royal Air Force. “If a satellite in orbit can no longer perform its function, or if a new need emerges, we need to launch within days, if not hours. And it’s not sufficient to launch to just any orbit; we need to place the satellite into the orbit where it is needed.
“Thankfully, with commercially developed capabilities like what Virgin Orbit has done with air launch and what our other team ARTEMIS members have done in their fields, this is now in the realm of possibility. This programme will help us ensure we know how to make use of those important capabilities to support the RAF’s mission.”
Ms Mordaunt also announced that the RAF intends to send one of its test pilots on secondment to Virgin Orbit, pending regulatory approvals. The pilot will be selected by the RAF, and would provide key operational insights into the best ways to integrate Virgin Orbit’s system and its unique capabilities into the RAF’s planning and operations.
Virgin Orbit recently completed a key drop test of its LauncherOne vehicle, the last major step in the development programme of its novel launch service.