Virgin Orbit chooses Guam as launch site for small satellites

SATELLITE LAUNCH: A LauncherOne rocket is shown attached to a Boeing 747. The plane climbs to a certain altitude and launches the rocket into space, then the rocket deploys a satellite for low earth orbit or orbit around the equator. Photo courtesy of Virgin Orbit

With the Department of Defense on board, British billionaire Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit has firmed up its decision to use Guam as a launch site for small satellites through its LauncherOne Service, the company announced.

Officials at U.S. Pacific Air Forces have issued a letter of support for Andersen Air Force Base to host launches and other exercises with LauncherOne and its dedicated carrier aircraft — a critical step en route to a first launch from the island, which could occur in as little as a year’s time, Virgin Orbit announced.

Additionally, the A.B. Won Pat International Airport has begun the process of seeking its launch site operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, for the commercial airport to serve as a future launch site for Virgin Orbit.

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, Virgin Orbit stated.

“Launching from Guam gives us easy access to every orbital inclination our customers need. With our air-launched system, we will fly out as any other airplane, move out to sea and release our rocket. Our minimal footprint coupled with Guam’s natural launch location results in a great match," said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart.

“With the continued support from Gov. Leon Guerrero and our partners in the DOD, we are well on our way towards providing new launch opportunities for small satellites that have waited too long for their ride to space, and we’re thankful to the local government in Guam for their enthusiasm and support,” Hart stated in a press release.

“This is a rare opportunity for our island to be front and center of a groundbreaking space industry,” Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said. “Guam has always been a rare gem known for great weather, a beautiful landscape and warm people, and now we can add space transportation to that list.”

Guam enhances the flexibility of Virgin Orbit’s launch operations, adding a low-latitude site with clear launch trajectories in almost all directions, giving Virgin Orbit’s customers unparalleled control over where and when their small spacecraft are deployed, the company stated.

Last month, Lt. Governor Joshua Tenorio met with Richard DalBello, vice president of Business Development and Government Affairs of Virgin Galactic; and Mandy Vaughn, resident of VOX Space LLC, sister company of Virgin Orbit, to discuss the possibilities of using Guam as a hub for launching small satellites.

“We are keen to partner with Virgin Orbit to generate a new space industry in Guam and advance our local economy, as well as spur new STEM education opportunities for our youth to take us into the future,” Tenorio said.

In addition to the launch site’s primary appeal to commercial missions, VOX Space also anticipates using Guam and other launch sites to provide responsive launch 2 capability to the national security space community.

As part of a series of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements with the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Superiority Directorate located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, CA, among others, VOX Space is developing concepts for how commercially developed space capabilities can partner with and complement the U.S. Department of Defense’s existing mobility, transportation, and space launch systems.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system is now in the final phases of testing, after successfully demonstrating all major assemblies with multiple flight vehicles in production. Having just completed its fourth captive carry flight with a test rocket mated to the wing, Virgin Orbit is on track to conduct its first orbital test flight later this year.

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