The Luxembourg Directorate of Defense and Virgin Orbit signed an agreement earlier this week to explore the possibility of developing “responsive space capabilities” for use by NATO and possibly other allies.
The letter of intent, signed on Monday by the Luxembourg Minister of Defense and Virgin Orbit, kickstarts a collaboration in which the two partners will explore the possibility of using Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system as means to advance NATO’s reach into space, as explained in a company press release. The mobile launch infrastructure provided by Virgin Orbit would be based in Luxembourg but made available to NATO and its European partners.
The Luxembourg Directorate of Defense said in a defense space strategy released earlier this year that it wants to boost its capacities having to do with satellite communications, Earth observation, and the tracking of orbiting objects. Virgin Orbit, founded in 2017 by Richard Branson, is in the business of launching small satellites to space.
“We look forward to working with the Luxembourg Directorate of Defense to explore how Virgin Orbit’s flexible and mobile LauncherOne system can provide end-to-end responsive space missions to strengthen the resiliency of NATO and other Allies,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart in the press release.
LauncherOne, a two-stage horizontal launch system, has been in operation since January 2021. The system now regularly delivers smallsats into orbit for various commercial, civil, national security, and international customers. Instead of launching from the ground, LauncherOne gets carried to the upper atmosphere by a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl. Released at a high altitude, the LauncherOne rocket continues on its journey to space, carrying payloads no heavier than 660 pounds (300 kilograms).
Under the newly forged agreement, Virgin Orbit will present a plan for developing, delivering, mobilizing, and sustaining the associated ground support equipment and other launch infrastructure that could eventually be used by NATO partners. The Luxembourg defense department envisions a network of spaceports across Europe from which Virgin Orbit’s horizontal launches could be deployed. This vision jibes well with Virgin Orbit’s goal of developing a global spaceport network, as the company explained in its press release.
“As highlighted in our Space Strategy, we aim at contributing to the joint effort in defense by developing high-end space capabilities and ensuring access to space through resilient satellite launch capabilities,” said Luxembourg Minister of Defense François Bausch. “Our future cooperation with Virgin Orbit is an excellent example of this ambition and we are looking forward to further investigate how we can contribute to the development of the responsive space capability with Allies and partners.”
Virgin Orbit is not to be confused with Virgin Galactic, though both companies were founded by Branson. Virgin Orbit performs orbital launches of smallsats, while Virgin Galactic is in the business of launching space tourists on suborbital flights to altitudes no higher than about 60 miles (100 kilometers). Virgin Galactic has struggled to get its space tourism offering off the ground, with only one space flight to its credit and the second not happening until next year.