Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, still under development, is among launchers selected by Nasa to deliver small satellites to space – offering an alternative to ride-sharing for cubesat operators.
Firefly, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic have been awarded $5.5m (£3.5m), $6.9 and $4.7m respectively as part of Nasa’s Launch Service Program (LSP) to provide cubesat, microsat and nanosatellite launches to low Earth orbit.
Until today, small satellites have been dependent on ride-sharing when space was available on other Nasa launches. But the growing popularity of small satellites for various types of applications has forced the US space agency to look for a better solution.
“Emerging small launch vehicles have great potential to expand the use of small satellites as integral components of Nasa’s Earth science orbital portfolio,” said Michael Freilich, director of Nasa’s Earth science division. “Today’s CubeSat technology fosters hands-on engineering and flight research training; with the addition of reliable, affordable, and dedicated access to space on small launchers, constellations of SmallSats and CubeSats could revolutionise our science-based spaceborne Earth-observing systems and capabilities.”
More than 50 cubesats will be delivered to space by the three companies over the next three years.
Small satellites are being increasingly used for exploration, technology demonstration, research and educational purposes. They provide a low-cost platform for Nasa to test and develop new instruments for laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement.
“We are excited to add Nasa to our growing list of customers who have signed contracts to launch small satellites onboard LauncherOne,” said Virgin Galactic president Steve Isakowitz. “When paired with affordable and responsive launch vehicles like LauncherOne, small satellites create big opportunities for business and for science.”
During the Nasa announcement, Virgin Galactic showed a video capturing a 90-second hot firing test of LauncherOne’s Newton Three main rocket engine. The test was conducted last week and marked an important milestone in the LauncherOne programme.
Virgin Galactic plans to offer launches at about $10m (£6.5) to deliver a 200kg payload into the high altitude Sun-synchronous orbit, the most popular orbit for small satellite missions.