Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab schedule first launches of 2021

Space

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit has rescheduled its second orbital launch attempt for Jan. 10 as another small launch vehicle company, Rocket Lab, announces plans for its first launch of 2021.

Virgin Orbit announced Jan. 5 that the second flight of its LauncherOne air-launch rocket is now scheduled for Jan. 10 between 1 and 5 p.m. Eastern. The rocket will be carried aloft by a modified Boeing 747 aircraft taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port, which will release it off the coast of Southern California.

The company had previously scheduled the “Launch Demo 2” mission for mid-December, but postponed it a week before because COVID-19 contact tracing led to a round of “precautionary quarantines” of its personnel. The company said that the quarantines meant it had “fallen below the number of staff we feel we require to prudently and safely proceed with pre-launch operations” and thus suspended launch preparations.

Virgin Orbit said it’s since completed all of its pre-launch preparations, including a wet dress rehearsal where the rocket is fueled, and is ready to proceed with the launch. Should a launch not take place on Jan. 10, it said it has “opportunities to launch throughout January.” According to U.S. Coast Guard notices to mariners, the company has backup dates of Jan. 17, 24 and 31.

The launch will carry 10 NASA-sponsored cubesats from eight universities and one NASA field center, arranged through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program. NASA awarded a contract for the launch in 2015 as part of its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.

Rocket Lab, which carried out its own VCLS launch in December 2018, announced Jan. 5 its next Electron launch. That mission, called “Another One Leaves the Crust” by the company, will launch no earlier than Jan. 16 from its New Zealand launch site.

The customer for the mission is German company OHB, which signed a contract for the launch in August. The payload is a single communications satellite built by OHB “that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit,” Rocket Lab said. The companies didn’t elaborate on the frequencies or the services planned.

The launch is the first of what Rocket Lab called a “packed launch manifest” for the Electron in 2021 that will include its first launches from both a second launch pad at New Zealand’s Launch Complex 1 as well as its Launch Complex 2 pad at Wallops Island, Virginia. The company, though, didn’t estimate the number of launches it expects to carry out in 2021.

“With respect to launch numbers, I’m not predicting anything these days,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a Nov. 23 call with reporters about the company’s efforts to recover and eventually reuse the Electron’s first stage.

“In the world of COVID and all of the uncertainties, it’s really difficult,” he continued. “What we can say is that there’s a ton of vehicles coming down the line and if we can now recover them, that just accelerates that rate.”

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