Virgin Orbit has signed a memorandum of understanding with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to provide small satellite launch capabilities.
The company will provide responsive launch capabilities for a small satellite constellation Operational Capability Demonstrator.
The agreement is part of the RAF project known as ‘ARTEMIS’, which aims to develop quick launch capabilities and streamline procurement timelines.
ARTEMIS will look into ways to ensure troops obtain space-based information in ‘operationally relevant’ timelines.
To achieve this, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is keen to demonstrate the utility of small satellites and responsive launch.
The RAF seeks to acquire the capability to launch satellites in a significantly short time to meet operational needs. This would mean Virgin Orbit could be given a week’s notice before a planned launch.
Speaking at the Royal Air Force Air and Space Power Conference in London last week, UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced that the ministry will fund £30m to fast-track the ARTEMIS programme.
The MoD has established a team of UK and US defence and industry personnel, dubbed team ARTEMIS.
The team will focus on the launch of the small satellites and also perform research to study the wider military scope of small satellites.
Virgin Orbit president and CEO Dan Hart said: “We’re thrilled to be working with the RAF and team ARTEMIS on this campaign and to go out and actually demonstrate something that would have been a dream only a few years ago.
“Ultimately, we are hopeful that by demonstrating the capability to quickly and easily deploy and replace satellites in low Earth orbit, we will be helping to remove the incentive for any nation to invest the money in harming another nation’s satellite.”
Virgin Orbit will launch spacecraft developed by Surrey Satellite Technology using a customised 747-400 aircraft as the launch pad. Team ARTEMIS intends to launch a small satellite demonstrator within a year.
The company’s LauncherOne vehicle will launch the demonstrator.
The project will help the UK build sovereign spacecraft launch capabilities, Virgin Orbit stated.
RAF chief of staff air vice-marshal SP ‘Rocky’ Rochelle said: “As the space environment grows more contested and congested, it is no longer acceptable to us to wait years between when we recognise we have a need and when we have a satellite in orbit.
“If a satellite in orbit can no longer perform its function, or if a new need emerges, we need to launch within days, if not hours.”