Partly inspired by NASA’s InSight mission to Mars, Virgin Orbit is set to expand its orbit with missions to deep space.
The InSight mission is the first dedicated to studying Mars’ deep interior by a variety of means, including monitoring the weather and marsquakes. At its launch, this mission saw two briefcase-sized communications spacecraft accompany the InSight lander to the Red Planet.
Collectively known as Mars Cube One (MarCO), the two spacecraft filled a critical communications gap by relaying the lander’s data back to Earth after it burst through Mars’ upper atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour. This was the first time that CubeSat technology had been used for an interplanetary mission and as well as being successful, it was more cost-effective than other options.
This got Virgin Orbit (and their customers) thinking about whether LauncherOne would be able to send payloads large enough to do meaningful work to places beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). And it turns out that the answer is yes.
By adding a third stage in the rocket’s fairing, LauncherOne will be able to send cutting-edge satellites soaring past LEO into deep space. Virgin Orbit has run the numbers and they think they’ve got a solid engineering plan to use a third stage to launch payloads towards the Moon, any of the Earth-Moon LaGrange points, various main-belt asteroids, Venus or Mars.
With this simple adaptation, LauncherOne unlocks the ability to deliver enough mass to interplanetary destinations to conduct some really valuable smallsat missions – whether that’s studying the potential for extraterrestrial life or learning more about the chemical composition of far-flung worlds.
This new capability will support Virgin Orbit’s recently announced first interplanetary mission. This mission is an important first step toward something the world has yet to see: a dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars.
Visit Virgin Orbit to find out more.