Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab are expanding their launch capabilities as each company prepares for maiden missions from countries they’ve never flown from.
For Rocket Lab, it’s the United States; for Virgin, it’s the UK (which has never seen an orbital launch, ever). Rocket Lab said Wednesday that the Electron rocket arrived at Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) in Wallops Island, Va.; Virgin’s Cosmic Girl 747 plane landed at Newquay Airport in Cornwall, South West England, early evening yesterday. Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket is due to arrive in Cornwall later this week.
These missions are major milestones for both companies. So far, Rocket Lab has exclusively launched Electron from the company’s compound on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 plane and LauncherOne rocket have only ever taken off from American soil.
Both are trade missions. Electron will deploy radio frequency satellites for HawkEye 360, the first of a three-launch agreement between the two companies. This launch will take place in December. Virgin’s manifesto includes a payload from the UK, Poland and the first-ever CubeSat from Oman. The Long Beach-based company is planning a November launch date – the UK’s first-ever orbital mission – although it is still awaiting a launch license from England’s aviation regulator.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said at the company’s Investor Day that a second LC-2 mission is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023. This mission will carry a payload for a commercial customer, which has not yet been announced. Rocket Lab’s substantial investment in Wallops doesn’t stop there: the company also plans to use the site for all manufacturing, operations, and launch of its medium-lift Neutron rocket. Rocket Lab will attempt its first Neutron launch in 2024.
Virgin’s LauncherOne successfully reached space for the first time in January 2021, followed by two more missions, all launching from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. Unlike conventional launch systems, Virgin’s 70-foot-long rocket is carried at high altitude under the wing of a 747 jet and detaches from the plane in flight.
While Virgin’s mission will be the first from the UK, the UK government hopes it won’t be the last. The country has made significant investments in the space sector after Brexit (so far the UK has relied on European launch partners), and the domestic space industry has grown steadily since 2012. Perhaps the government’s best-known investment is the roughly £500m ($553m) spent to acquire a 45% stake in satellite operator OneWeb. In February, he also released a plan to invest £1.4 billion ($1.5 billion) in military satellites and other space-based technologies for the defense sector over the next 10 years.