Virgin Territory in Cornwall

By  //  May 19, 2021

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Horizontal satellite launch is a 30-year-old technology. However, Virgin Orbit’s successful LauncherOne flight from a Boeing 747 on Jan. 17, 2021, is a significant milestone for the commercial space industry.

With the payloads reaching orbit hours after launch, Virgin Orbit became the third of the current generation of non-government entities to put a satellite into orbit. The list of firsts that the Virgin Orbit team marked off, though, explains why the launch was significant.

So, let’s take a look at what the company’s feat means for both the satellite launch industry and one airport in Cornwall in particular. At the same time, let’s pay attention to one aspect of the budding U.K. space launch industry that is gaining increasing attention: the environmental impact of adding launch capacity in Cornwall.

The story to date

On Jan. 17, Boeing 707-400 Cosmic Girl (N744VG) took off from Long Beach, California, with a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket bolted to the wing. This launch was the first direct attempt by Virgin Orbit to launch a commercial satellite by plane.

During a test flight on May 25, 2020, the rocket successfully separated from Cosmic Girl, tested its fins, and fired the first stage’s engine. However, shortly after firing, a high-pressure fuel line failed in stage one and, with the engines starved for fuel and falling, the control station destroyed the rocket. The test carried the Starshine-4 student satellite, which under other circumstances would have gone into a Low Earth Orbit.

However, with the successful operational flight in January under its belt, Virgin Orbit is preparing for commercial operations. According to Tech Crunch, the company is scheduled to launch a Dutch defence satellite in the first half of 2021.

Backstory

Virgin Orbit’s novelty is not in the fact that it achieved horizontal launch or that it could potentially do so quickly. Northrup Grumman’s Pegasus series of horizontal air-launched rockets has been in use since 1990. Like LauncherOne, the current Pegasus XL is launched from a retired wide-bodied passenger jet. Northrop Grumman, the current project owner, uses the only remaining Lockheed L-1011 three-engine jet in service, named Stargazer, as a launch platform. The Pegasus XL is carried under the fuselage.

The Pegasus series is a successful launch system. Northrop Grumman has launched 95 satellites over 44 missions, according to its website. Stargazer has started launch missions from sites as geographically diverse as Gran Canary to the continental U.S. to the Marshall Islands. In this sense, Virgin Orbit is following a well-worn path.

So, why haven’t we been celebrating the long history of horizontal launch? The short answer: cost. According to the Wikipedia article on Pegasus, Pegasus XL charges $40 million per launch. LauncherOne: $12 million. For Low Earth Orbits, LauncherOne can carry 500kg to orbit, versus Pegasus XL’s 443kg.

How it works

The 747 has a hard point for attaching a fifth engine between the inside left engine and the fuselage. Usually, this spot is used by airlines that need to move replacement engines between sites, and the GE CF-6 turbofans that the 747 uses weigh on the order of 11,000 lbs each. Launcher One, though, weighs 57,000 lbs, so the hard point needs strengthening as well as a modification to release the rocket. Since the aircraft releases LauncherOne before the engine is fired, the rocket free-falls and the hard point is not stressed from the acceleration.

Cosmic Girl flies up to 35,000 feet before launching. This means that LauncherOne starts its powered journey with approximately three-quarters of the volume of the atmosphere below it, and atmospheric drag is reduced; so is the gravity drag. Moreover, because the rocket is attached to an aeroplane that can aim it toward any point on the compass, Virgin Orbit can put a payload into a specific orbit while minimizing the rocket fuel needed to overcome the effects of Earth’s rotation.

One other advantage is that by flying out over the ocean, Cosmic Girl can launch in any direction with relatively little concern for the effects of a launch failure. When carrying Launcher One, Cosmic Girl has a range of about 800 nm. This can put her far out to sea.

From her current launch point at Mohave Space Port, she can fly past the Catalina Islands off the coast of California for a launch. With the May 2020 flight as a reference point, this is a feature that has already proven its worth.

Since there is no infrastructure to damage, a failed launch won’t materially affect the timing of further launches. However, if an accident happens during the takeoff or before the carrier reaches the sea, the consequences might be disastrous for the nearby populated area. 

Preparing for horizontal flight

Another difference between the Pegasus-XL and LauncherOne, and one reason that the Virgin Orbit project took so long to get to the commercial launch stage is in terms of propellant. The Pegasus series uses solid fuel, whereas LauncherOne uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1, which is a liquid. Similar to commercial jet fuel or JA-1, RP-1 is kerosene-based but refined to higher tolerances and with lower sulfur content.

RP-1 has a long history in space flight and has been used by the United States since the Delta-I rockets of the early 1960s. However, all of those projects were vertically launched. Virgin Orbit notes that using RP-1 in a horizontal launch presented the company with a unique set of engineering challenges.

The need to account for the loads generated on the liquid fuel was just one issue to overcome. Safety considerations were paramount as well since the aircrew would be just tens of meters from the rocket at launch, so the stakes are as high as the value of human lives. Handling the LOX on the ground and maintaining cryogenic conditions inside LauncherOne from loading to launch also required innovative solutions.

Following the complicated and quite dangerous technology, Virgin Orbit requires a license to be used in a particular locality. At the moment, they are only allowed to conduct launches from California. But with the plan to use Cornwall in the U.K. as another launch site, the company will need the UK-US regulatory approval. But so far, it is unclear whether Cosmic Girl will actually take off from the British airport.  

Environmental considerations

Environmentally, RP-1 is very well known on the ground and in the lower atmosphere, and the effects are similar to jet fuel. While cleaner than other liquid rocket fuels and producing less nitrogen-based exhaust than hypergolic fuels, RP-1 does release waste that could affect ozone.

The University of Exeter published a study in 2019 that estimated the effects of Virgin Galactic operations on the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in Cornwall. The researchers estimated GHG effects both including the impacts of Radiative Force (R.F.) on the stratosphere and neglecting it.

While the degree of the impact of R.F. is still uncertain at this time, informed estimates can be made. In the worst-case scenario, as described by the University of Essex, by the year 2030, Virgin Orbit’s operation in Cornwall should contribute an estimated 0.1% of Cornwall’s total GHG emissions even with R.F. was taken into account.

Because Galaxy Girl and LauncherOne use well-known versions of kerosene, no esoteric containment measures need to be taken in terms of groundwater and soil pollution concerns. While not specifically connected to Virgin Orbit operations, the Cornwall Airport Newquay Master Plan 2015-2030 reported on a variety of types of pollution originating at the airport. The functioning of the spaceport was not seen as posing extra forms of risk.

However, groundwater run-off and its processing were already considerations, as Newquay Airport was considering the development of a Business Park on the site. While treatment volumes may rise with the extra use of the site with Virgin Orbit as a client, it is an existing issue for the former RAF field in particular that needs addressing, according to the report.

Noise pollution is also a factor, and local citizens have already begun complaining. However, a horizontal launch is coming to Cornwall precisely because of the lessened noise pollution background. Current plans for Virgin Orbit do not include frequent flights from Cornwall, and Galaxy Girl does not make more noise than a regular 747. Moreover, the rocket launch is too far off the coast and too high to pose a noise pollution threat.

A $1 billion question

Now that Virgin Orbit has a successfully operating platform, can it recoup the $1 billion that it took to get there? One of its first larger volume customers, OneWeb, scrapped 35 of 39 launches of its satellites in favour of Arianespace through its Franco-Russian holding Starsem at Baikonur.

While there is no indication that the American-made satellites would have been launched from Cornwall, the loss of the launches puts a hole in Virgin Orbit’s schedule. As Orbital Today reported previously, Virgin Orbit took OneWeb to court for $46.3 million in compensation.

Cornwall Spaceport makes sense for Virgin Orbit in a manner that is the reverse of OneWeb’s decision to build satellites near the launch facilities in Florida.

In this case, the small-sat prowess found in southwest England may come to the rescue. The region offered everything from design to control and lacked only launch capacity. With a capacity that minimizes the effect upon Cornwall’s environment, Virgin Orbit closes that gap.