Written Evidence Submitted by Virgin Orbit Inputs

(SPA0069)

 

 

 

Introduction:

The United Kingdom has taken concrete and commendable steps toward expanding and enhancing its leadership in space and the space economy – which today generates an income of £14.8 billion for the country and is expected only to grow in the coming years.

Virgin Orbit, a U.S.-based company with a subsidiary in the UK that is developing the mobile air-launched LauncherOne small launch platform, applauds the United Kingdom for its proactivity in growing its space capabilities and setting out to develop a coherent vision and national strategy for its use of outer space for good

Virgin Orbit is especially encouraged that the U.K. is currently moving forward in Cornwall to create a capability to launch LauncherOne by the summer of 2022, which would mark the first-ever orbital launch from U.K. soil.

The work being done in Cornwall, coupled with the LaunchUK initiative and other steps to foster U.K.-based launch, are key elements in the future growth of the U.K. space economy. Sovereign, domestic launch capabilities will catalyze the development of the broader U.K. space industry, especially in specialized areas of U.K. expertise – such as the small satellite manufacturing sector.

As such, Virgin Orbit believes that the U.K. should, as part of its broader strategy to develop its space economy, extend its “sovereign national launch strategy,” which builds upon the current activities underway in Cornwall and in partnership with Virgin Orbit. The acquisition of a sovereign, turn-key domestic launch system will provide the U.K. with resilient and responsive space capability, further activities in STEM, and provide access to space for commercial space utilization.

Virgin Orbit is pleased to offer this input to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry on the U.K. Space Strategy and U.K. satellite infrastructure. We are eager to engage and work with our U.K. commercial partners, the U.K. Parliament, U.K. Space Agency, the Civil Aviation Authority, the U.K Ministry of Defense and other U.K. government entities to deliver a turn-key launch capability to British soil, which will catalyze the growth of a vibrant, resilient British space sector. With continued government support of the local space ecosystem in a protracted and sustainable way, and in partnership with commercial partners and investor groups, the U.K. will be on its way to achieving its stated goal of capturing 10% of the Global Space Market by 2030.

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Description automatically generated with medium confidenceAbout Virgin Orbit:

Virgin Orbit[1] enables affordable access to orbit for small satellites. Utilizing an air-launch approach from a 747-400 carrier aircraft, named Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne launch system (Figure 1), is the launch service that is accelerating the small satellite revolution by offering the agility, flexibility, and affordability necessary to transform the space landscape.

Virgin Orbit and its U.K.-based subsidiary, are gearing to provide the missing element of the U.K. space sector by providing the last link to space. ImageThe company is eager to pursue robust collaboration with the British space sector. The Virgin Group, Virgin Orbit’s primary shareholder, was founded and is headquartered in the United Kingdom. In June of 2021, Virgin Orbit showcased its LauncherOne launch system to U.K. leaders at Spaceport Cornwall in conjunction with the 2021 G7 Summit (Figure 2).

Leveraging its unique air-launch system, Virgin Orbit provides turnkey space-based data and communications solutions to customers by coordinating and providing the launch, spacecraft integration, constellation management, and ground segment services. Virgin Orbit also provides mission integration services by leveraging its extensive network of U.S. and international industry partners.

Virgin Orbit offers a premier small satellite launch service by providing dedicated launches to the orbit and schedule of the customer’s choice. With Virgin Orbit corporate headquarters and launch vehicle manufacturing activities in Long Beach, California, the Virgin Group has invested in the team, technologies, and facilities required to usher in a new era of sovereign launch accessibility.

That investment has brought the technology to maturity and service into operation, giving the U.K. the opportunity to gain access to space without any upfront development expenditures or incurring any significant risk to taxpayers.

A Vibrant British Space Ecosystem:

Today, the British space industry has abundant in-country expertise and capabilities that generate a self-sustaining national space program. For example, the United Kingdom has industry-leading small satellite manufacturers, such as Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, Spire, Clyde Space, Open Cosmos, In-Space, KISPE, and many others.

The U.K. space ecosystem also consists of numerous national labs and university systems that generate high-technology payloads purpose built for space-based sensors, such as the University of Leicester, University of Surrey, University of College of London, Open University, and many others. These universities, in partnership with technology centers in Harwell and, through facilitators like the Satellite Applications Catapult, are helping tie together end-to-end linkages for the U.K. space ecosystem. Furthermore, the U.K. has ground station operators, like Goonhilly, and a robust burgeoning technology sector that will be critical for support purposes and down-stream analytics services.

The U.K. government-sponsored LaunchUK initiative, designed with the goal of bringing sovereign launch capability to the U.K. in 2022, has proven to be influential for creating diplomatic influence and international relationships. Multiple international launch providers and large aerospace companies have sought involvement, including Virgin Orbit.

Work is progressing at Spaceport Cornwall to develop accompanying infrastructure to support payload integration, fueling, and related capabilities for horizontal launch services to maximize local participation, development and economic gain at the operational, commercial airport. Coupled with the U.K. government’s work to establish an updated set of regulatory guidelines and authorities for domestic commercial space launch, Britain is becoming positioned to serve as a future launching state and location for the region.

The Need for Sovereign Launch:

As the U.K. space industry begins to find its footing and emerge with low-cost, high-performance satellite and sensor technology, the U.K. Government has an opportunity to foster growth by developing further opportunities for in-country launch, and by encouraging closer partnerships and collaboration between U.K.-based space entities and prospective launch providers.

As an example, the U.K. Satellite Launch Programme has been a decisive action by the U.K. Government to help secure the country’s position in the growing global space market – to date, it has helped the U.K. establish a supportive license regime, obtaining necessary international approvals for launch activities, and has stimulated support and demand.

While significant progress has been made on establishing the license regime and securing international approvals, supply and market demand for launch remain a significant issue where further support will be required. Despite high interest in launching from the U.K., a gap still exists for securing U.K. payloads due to procurement habits and initial price differences vis-a-vis existing large launch providers. There are many U.K. civil, commercial, and academic payloads seeking launch but with inadequate budget to procure commercial launch services.

One such approach to resolve this is through facilitating – through policy, strategy, and funding further partnerships and programs which will enable the deployment of, and leverage, an in-country sovereign launch capability.

The benefits of developing a “national launch strategy” include:

 

 

Mobile launch systems, such as LauncherOne provided by Virgin Orbit, enable near-term space launch capabilities from U.K. soil. Combined with the robust U.K. based space industrial base, sovereign launch provides the U.K. with end-to-end space capabilities that can be built and launched from the U.K., increasing U.K. prosperity overall as well as ensuring space-based resilience for U.K. security. At-ready space access capability will help jump-start the U.K. space ecosystem, providing U.K. space companies ample opportunity to begin conducting space operations and applications.

Enabling Sovereign Launch: Embracing Turn-Key Solutions

Virgin Orbit believes a simple yet fundamental approach to resolving the sovereign launch situation is for the U.K. to embrace turn-key, at-the-ready launch solutions (either domestic or from allied partners) that exist on the market today. Doing so has significant flow-out benefit for the U.K.’s broader space programs and initiatives.

The U.K. can create efforts that can leverage technologies and investment from commercial companies, especially with ones located in allied nations, as an avenue to gain access and collaboration with those allies. Constructing coherent programs which involve multiple stakeholder and partners is an effective way for the U.K. to grow its space competencies and competitiveness.

Virgin Orbit has had the opportunity to engage the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) on the ARTEMIS small satellite and launch program, and the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) on the stand up of Spaceport Cornwall under the LaunchUK initiative. In these efforts the team has observed three areas of importance for success in the U.K.’s space sector: a focus on speed of execution, reduced risk by partnering with commercial industry, and the ability to create a cadre of space proficient personnel in the MoD and U.K. commercial base. These factors should be embraced in a national launch strategy.

Programs that move quickly can focus on returning material results, all while providing equally or better performance than heritage multi-year systems. To remain relevant within the competitive national security and commercial space timescales, programs must be nimble. The successes with ARTEMIS and LaunchUK have been made possible by swift government support and actions that enable focus on creating operational end-use. Developing programs that leverage commercial partnerships and investments allow for the U.K. to share risk with mission partners.

Schedule risk is reduced as previous commercial work can be leveraged to accelerate timescales to meet initial requirements. Performance risk is marginalized by reuse of the technology, systems, and operations developed or, in the case of LaunchUK, where the commercial provider can expand on existing capability. Virgin Orbit recommends that a U.K. space strategy embrace this approach, especially as it pertains to securing partnerships for domestic launch services that leverage existing, available, turn-key launch capabilities.

Sovereign Launch – Enhancing Space Resilience:

Fostering the development of sovereign capabilities in the small satellite ecosystem, both from domestic suppliers as well as launch capability within sovereign U.K. territories, will help the U.K. government maximize resilience to natural hazards and malicious threats in the space domain.

A robust space program with the ability to specifically monitor the U.K. in a wide range of modalities will reduce potential risk to the U.K. For example, space-based imagery has proven invaluable in climate change monitoring; newer techniques such as hyperspectral imagery, synthetic aperture radar, and advanced weather monitoring bring a wealth of new knowledge at cost effective means through small satellites.

Similarly, malicious threats exist to the U.K.’s space systems and the U.K. at-large, which can be addressed through a robust space capability, as noted in the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Advanced space-based intelligence and surveillance systems have traditionally been the domain of defense but with robust commercial efforts and sound space policy for MoD assets, dual-use of collected data is possible to support cross-Whitehall uses in both civil resilience from natural hazards as well as defense resilience from malicious threats.

Space programs will benefit the U.K. with near term capability that can serve MoD and security missions, but also aid cross-Whitehall needs, including:

 

 

By looking at a relevant case study of the planned U.K. Spaceport in Cornwall (where Virgin Orbit is now establishing LauncherOne operations), the economic benefits for the United Kingdom enabled by sovereign launch – as well as the creation of resilience in the space-related job market – are apparent.

A U.K. study concluded that since the inception of the space development plans at Spaceport Cornwall, its space sector has seen a 164% growth since 2010. Employee numbers have risen by around 234% since 2010, illustrating growth and expansion of companies within the sector in Cornwall. Cornwall aims to create and be a catalyst for up to 10,000 jobs in the U.K. by taking advantage of space-derived data and launch capabilities. The high-quality jobs within the sector are highly attractive to Cornwall with the average national yearly salary. Launches from the spaceport itself will Virgin are projected to help create and sustain up to 500 jobs in the South West/Cornwall by 2028.

Sustaining and growing this ecosystem requires a long-term strategic approach anchored by the government tenant but which is further advanced through commercial innovation. Stimulating commercial companies to conduct missions from the U.K. and providing the supporting infrastructure is key to sustaining a robust commercial marketplace that is more independent and viable for future generations.

Responsive, Mobile Launch – Enhancing Space Resilience:

Space resiliency can be enhanced through implementation of responsive, mobile launch solutions. Traditional vertical launch solutions are tied to fixed infrastructure such as launch pads, which can be placed at risk from natural hazards but also by malicious threats. Leveraging multiple launch systems within the U.K. provides resilience to space access, with ongoing efforts by LaunchUK in Scotland as well as Cornwall.

Beyond multiple systems, horizontal launch solutions can provide resilience in launch location by providing launch capability from multiple locations within the U.K. and U.K. Overseas Territories without requiring fixed ground infrastructure. The ability to launch from anywhere is strategically unique, increases overall system resilience, and provides space access on demand for the U.K.

As space becomes an increasingly contested domain, deterrence is more critical than ever in preserving MoD space-based systems from kinetic and non-kinetic threats. Though space warfighting capabilities are required to maintain space superiority, space deterrence is a capability that ultimately enables resiliency in the space domain.

While leveraging commercial constellations and hybrid satellite architectures can play a role in unlocking space deterrence, responsive launch is a critical capability that can have a strategic impact. Responsive launch is the ability to launch a spacecraft into orbit on short notice. Operational responsive launch is the rapid deployment of space assets into a pre-planned, tailored orbit optimized for a specific mission.

The ability to replace small satellite constellations affordably and responsively through flexible launch will serve as a strong deterrent to bad actors, thanks to the ease and speed by which lost capabilities can be restored. To meet this new mission, access to space must evolve from traditional ground-based launch systems that are in service today because of their inherent inflexibility and lack of agility. Ground-based launch systems are vulnerable to weather-induced launch delays and feature inflexible launch manifests because of an increasing oversaturation of the limited number of launch ranges.

The MoD is in a unique position in which it can employ responsive launch to achieve space deterrence in the coming years. Through the U.K. Space Agency’s (UKSA) LaunchUK initiative, the MoD is gaining access to both a horizontal and vertical small launch capability that are commercially focused and privately funded—minimizing the need for government investment. Horizontal launch is well suited to fulfil the responsive launch capability as this approach offers greater orbital access options with less fixed launch infrastructure when compared to ground launch.

Additionally, horizontal launch’s flexibility and mobility are more conducive to supporting rapid call-up requirements; a flexible launch system that can serve a diverse array of inclinations and orbits is a critical element of responsive launch. The MoD can greatly strengthen its space resiliency through leveraging a disaggregated number of spaceports to execute responsive launch.

At fixed-infrastructure sites, launch ranges serve as strategic vulnerabilities both to weather-induced restrictions as well as potential adversarial actions. The ultimate mechanism to minimize this vulnerability is to increase the number of dispersed spaceports capable of supporting responsive launch. The Armed Forces can leverage remote sites such as RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands, RAF Ascension Island, and Diego Garcia that can support a horizontal launch capability and ensure resilient access to space either independently, in cooperation with the US, or with Five Eyes partners.

Ultimately, the advertised ability to rapidly replace space capability via responsive launch is critical in allowing the MoD to achieve deterrence in the space domain. Ultimately, the RAF’s unique existing launch infrastructure maximizes the flexibility and impact of responsive launch.

Virgin Orbit’s Turn-Key Sovereign, Responsive Launch Solution:

Virgin Orbit offers key technical capabilities and strategic partnership opportunities that will enable a turn-key launch solution for British industry and government, from British launch locations.

Virgin Orbit provides flexible services to launch a suite of desired satellite mission capabilities and applications; and can leverage its vast technical expertise and know-how to effectively manage, integrate and deliver missions direct to orbit, providing a technology leap in capabilities to the United Kingdom.

For these missions, Virgin Orbit envisions teaming with British organizations – such as British commercial space entities, British universities, the U.K. Space Agency, or the Ministry of Defense. Virgin Orbit would likewise partner with small satellite manufacturers, including those domestic to the United Kingdom, to accommodate an array of multi-mission payloads (supplied, for example, by MoD, British industry, or other third parties).

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Description automatically generatedLeveraging the small satellite platform, Virgin Orbit can accommodate payloads supplied by British entities to achieve targeted mission objectives. Virgin Orbit would work with British partners, to determine how mission needs can be fulfilled cost-effectively with a locally-produced payload.

Virgin Orbit would provide, via its LauncherOne launch system, a responsive, resilient, low-cost launch capability enabled predominantly by sovereign in-country activities at Spaceport Cornwall or other British spaceports. Virgin Orbit has baselined Spaceport Cornwall for LauncherOne missions out of the U.K. because of the site’s advantageous location and existing infrastructure. However, Virgin Orbit is open to working with British partners to select alternative sites to serve as British hubs for LauncherOne missions.

Furthermore, Virgin Orbit can work with the MoD to identify other RAF airbases that could serve as ‘LauncherOne-Ready’ sites; LauncherOne-Ready sites are facilities that could be rapidly configured to support quick-turn LauncherOne missions by the RAF or allies (e.g., U.S., Australia), where the LauncherOne system is brought in for a launch campaign and then returned to the spaceport of origin.

Virgin Orbit could provide British entities (e.g., the RAF or UKSA) with its own modified 747 carrier aircraft and corresponding mobile infrastructure, which would be headquartered in Britain with eventual plans to be operated by British personnel if desired. With its own air-launch system, the U.K. will not only have assured access to space, but also have a mobile and highly flexible system that can conduct responsive launch missions within as fast as 24-hours.

This sovereign launch capability would be comprised of the following elements:

 

 

 

Virgin Orbit would treat this responsive launch infrastructure like a “government-owned, company-operated” arrangement, in which the British organization would own the launch system, and Virgin Orbit would operate it on its behalf. Virgin Orbit would supply the LauncherOne rockets for missions.

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Description automatically generatedHowever, if the U.K. organization would prefer a “government-owned, government-operated” arrangement, initially or in time, to achieve full control, Virgin Orbit could provide this enhanced flexibility. In this scenario, Virgin Orbit would train the appropriate British personnel so that they would be capable of conducting sovereign launches without Virgin Orbit assistance. Virgin Orbit has experience with this type of arrangement, as the company is currently hosting and training a U.K. RAF pilot as part of an effort to help the U.K. bolster its sovereign launch capabilities.

For U.K. satellite constellation needs, Virgin Orbit and its industry partners can establish an in-country satellite assembly, integration, and test facility, helping strengthen Britain’s space industry. When locally integrated with LauncherOne, this provides a turnkey responsive space solution in the United Kingdom and maximizes the effectiveness of the U.K.’s small satellite missions by providing dedicated launch to any orbit.

Ultimately, Virgin Orbit’s proposed turnkey sovereign launch capability is the most effective way in which the U.K. can achieve resiliency in space and growth in its domestic space ecosystem. The immediate availability of Virgin Orbit’s proven LauncherOne system offers the United Kingdom with a low-risk and low-cost alternative to internally developing its own launch capability.

Conclusion:

Virgin Orbit and its subsidiary, Virgin Orbit U.K., are incredibly enthused by the opportunities for supporting and contributing to the ever-growing U.K. space ecosystem.

The U.K. is one of the few countries in the world that has a nearly complete end-to-end domestic space manufacturing and operational capability; and with launch coming to Britain in 2022, the U.K. will ensure a gateway to space in a controlled and secure manner that can help stimulate future growth and achieve the U.K.’s stated goal of capturing 10% of the Global Space Economy by 2030. Taking advantage of the billion+ dollars invested into commercial launch systems provides the UK with “pennies on the pound” sovereign launch capability to any inclination, at any time Leveraging funds already expended in launch to assure access to space enables the UK to focus funding on fully utilizing its broad space industry, and holistically develop an entire portfolio of space capabilities.

To achieve the ambitious goals for capturing a significant portion of the global space economy, we believe that the U.K. should consider the following:

 

 

 

 

 

(June 2021)


[1] https://virginorbit.com/