Virgin Orbit has big plans to send small spaceships to Mars by 2022. The company – an offshoot of Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic – announced today that it is partnering with nearly a dozen Polish universities and a Polish satellite. Manufacturers called SatRevolution to design up to three robotic missions to the Red Planet over the next decade.
If successful, these missions could be the first purely commercial voyages to Mars. So far, only four organizations have made it to the Red Planet successfully, and all were government-led space agencies. Commercial companies like SpaceX have vowed to send spaceships to Earth's neighbor, but so far Mars has been the only domain of nation states. "It's still a pretty small club, and none of them was anything like this, which is a consortium of companies and universities," said Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, to The Verge . , In addition, all of these space agency vehicles were usually large ̵
But the Virgin Orbit team was inspired to take on this task thanks to NASA's latest InSight mission, which sent a lander to Mars in November 2018. When the InSight lander started, two small standardized spaceships the size of cereal boxes – known as CubeSats – took off and traveled all the way to Mars following the vehicle. It was the first time that CubeSats, or a small spaceship of this size, had traveled orbit beyond Earth's orbit. The pair of satellites did exactly the job they wanted and relayed signals from InSight back to Earth, proving that small satellites can be valuable for space missions at a very low cost.
Now Virgin Orbit has found a way to send vehicles with the company's future missile, called LauncherOne, 50 kilograms will be transported into space. Much of Virgin Orbit's business plan is to launch the rocket into near-Earth orbit, but Pomerantz says it's possible to go even further. "We spent some time internally looking at the options, and found that we can actually do some things that are pretty interesting for places like the Moon and Mars, Mars Moons, Venus, and maybe a. A few of the asteroid belts in the asteroid belt," he says.
As part of the agreement, SatRevolution will build these future space satellites, while the partner universities of Poland will work out the mission concepts. The consortium has already proposed possible missions to capture images of Mars and its moons, to study the atmosphere of the Red Planet, and even to search for water.
Unlike most rockets, LauncherOne is not designed to launch from the ground, but instead is designed to take off under the wing of an airplane. Virgin Orbit owns a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, which should lift the rocket into the sky and then drop it. In the air, the engine ignites the rocket and moves into orbit. However, for a future space mission, the missile could include an additional platform on top – essentially a small booster with an engine attached to it – that can propel a small satellite beyond the original Earth orbit into space. Ultimately, there are a number of ways in which such a space mission could work, says Pomerantz, although the company is not yet detailing.
Although these are all very high dreams, LauncherOne has yet to realize its first flight. The Virgin Orbit team, following a series of tests with both Cosmic Girl and the rocket, is approaching the target of flying the rocket before the end of the year (although the original destination was the flight this summer). The first flight will be critical to the company, paving the way for regular commercial operations and potential deep-space flights.
"This is really about opening the door to what people can imagine with a smaller vehicle – smaller satellites, smaller rockets," says Pomerantz. "All the stuff that people, including myself, considered impossible a few years ago is coming to fruition, and people are becoming more creative when they see that all of these things are successful."