Virgin Orbit selected to launch 6 imaging satellites to low Earth orbit

In a press release Wednesday, Virgin Orbit announced that they were selected by geospatial analytics company Hypersat, and QinetiQ, a defense and security company, to launch 6 hyperspectral satellites into low earth orbit.

Hyperspectral imaging records information across the electromagnetic spectrum. These cover a much wider range than visible light. While a traditional camera on a satellite may be able to gather imagery and information on vegetation and sediments; the use of hyperspectral imaging can cover far more applications. The near-infrared range can be used to determine atmospheric properties, accurately determine cloud cover while thermal infrared imagery can be used to determine ozone content, find surface temperatures of oceans, and find forest fires.

The first satellite, launching no earlier than 2023 will be able to image visible to shortwave infrared (including the near-infrared) while future satellites will reach into the long wave, thermal infrared region.

The high spatial and spectrum pixel resolution available from its sensor payload will allow the satellites to be used not only in defense and security applications, but also for other commercial sectors, such as agriculture and insurance, where highly accurate Earth observation images can inform critical decisions.

– Virgin Orbit Press Release

Virgin Orbit’s Air Launch

Virgin Orbit’s first successful launch of LauncherOne in January made it the first all liquid-fueled air-launched rocket to reach orbit. LauncherOne rockets are attached to the wing of a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl and dropped before being ignited and launched into orbit. These air-launch systems have the advantage of avoiding the densest atmosphere while accelerating, saving fuel while being able to have a better-optimized engine through the duration of the first stage burn. The planes can also take off from a standard runway and bring the rocket out over the ocean, away from population centers, for launch.

There are also some criticisms of the air-launch systems. Elon Musk argues that the “maybe 5% improvement in payload to orbit” is not worth the added complexity and risk of an air-launch system. Air-launch systems also have a limited maximum size for them to be feasible. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is only a 70ft rocket weighing approximately 30tons.

“Virgin Orbit is making good on our promise to unleash the small satellite revolution,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “QinetiQ’s team embodies the bold energy of this new era of space. It’s extremely exciting to join with our partners to deploy new capabilities and new ideas that will shape our world.”

-Virgin Orbit Press Release

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