Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, a sister company to the space tourism-focused Virgin Galactic, has announced today it intends to launch an ambitious mission to Mars as soon as three years from now – opening a new window into interplanetary Solar System exploration.
In a statement released today, the company said it was working with the Polish company SatRevolution to develop a mission to send the world’s first “dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars.” The mission would launch on LauncherOne, an air-launch rocket being designed by the company to operate from its modified Boeing 747 plane, called Cosmic Girl.
“We have already seen the incredible utility of small satellites here in Earth orbit, and we’re thrilled to start providing dedicated launches to deep space,” Virgin Orbit’s Vice President of Business Development Stephen Eisele said in the statement.
Working with SatRevolution and a handful of Polish universities as part of a Mars consortium, Virgin Orbit said it would be designing three scientific missions to travel to Mars, with the first launch expected no sooner than 2022.
Details on the missions haven’t been revealed yet, but the company noted that spacecraft as small as 50 kilograms would be used to image Mars and its moon Phobos, analyze the Martian atmosphere, and even look for subsurface water.
California-based Virgin Orbit has yet to launch one of its LauncherOne rockets to orbit yet, but it hopes to do so later this year. The company plans to operate from multiple spaceports including the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and the under-development Cornwall Spaceport in the U.K.
With a lifting capability of up to 500 kilograms to orbit per launch, the two-stage LauncherOne vehicle measuring 16 meters long is known as a smallsat launcher, comparable to the Electron rocket operated by Rocket Lab from New Zealand. However, a spokesperson for the company said deep space missions such as this were possible with the addition of a third stage, despite the small size of the rocket.
“Using a small third stage it is possible to mount missions to Mars, Venus, and the asteroid belt,” the spokesperson noted in an email. “We believe this could be used to put something in orbit [around Mars], not just a flyby.”
It’s understood that owing to the amount of fuel required to reach Mars, only about 10% of the rocket’s lifting capability could be taken up by the satellite. That should be enough to launch a small satellite to Mars, however, and such missions are not unprecedented.
In November 2018, NASA’s InSight Lander touched down on Mars, aided by two small CubeSats that had traveled with the mission called MarCO-A and MarCO-B. These small spacecraft weighing 13.5 kilograms each relayed data from the lander back to Earth, giving mission operators rapid data on the landing.
Getting to Mars will be no mean feat, but if Virgin Orbit can successfully place small satellites into orbit around the Red Planet, it would open up a huge swathe of possible missions to companies and universities. Already some researchers are looking at ways such missions might make the journey to Mars using novel propulsion technologies.
“Polish scientists and engineers are ready to develop the first-ever interplanetary scientific CubeSat mission,” Grzegorz Zwoliński, the president of SatRevolution, said in the statement. “The project will accelerate the development of small satellites and of lightweight space science instrument technology. We want Poland to be ‘the go-to’ country for small interplanetary spacecraft.”