7 mins read 28 Sep 2022

Virgin Orbit exploring Toowoomba for launch capability

Virgin Orbit has announced that they have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Toowoomba-Wellcamp Airport owners, Wagner Corporation, to begin the process of implementing an air-to-space national launch capability from Australia.

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl, modified Boeing 747 aircraft launching the LauncherOne Rocket. Credit: Virgin Orbit.

Virgin Orbit have committed to developing a capability at the Wellcamp Airport site by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with airport owners Wagner Corporation. 

Virgin Orbit utilises a modified Boeing 747 as their first stage launch vehicle, taking the rocket up to 35000 feet or just over 10 kilometres in altitude before releasing the two-stage rocket. This differs from traditional ground-launched methods that require large first-stage rockets and the accompanying launch site infrastructure, in that the aircraft can launch from potentially any site capable of facilitating a 747 aircraft and can circumnavigate any bad weather. This method of launching provides more flexibility, however, the size of the rocket is limited by the carrying capabilities of the aircraft. LauncherOne, Virgin Orbit’s two-stage launch vehicle released from the 747 aircraft, can carry a payload of up to 500 kilograms. 

According to Wagner Corporation Chairman, John Wagner, they hope to see Virgin Orbit flights take off from the Wellcamp site within the next 18 months. As the airport already services 747 aircraft, with weekly cargo flights as part of the Cathy Pacific Cargo network, it is hoped that any new infrastructure required to support the project will be minimal. 

The agreement will allow the companies to begin the process of implementing a national launch capability from Australia, with the goal of providing satellite launch services from the Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport using Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne System.

“Australia is at the tipping point for an exciting new chapter in space with increased small satellite activities amongst new commercial startups, universities, national civil programs enabled by the Australian Space Agency, and a number of programs under the Department of Defence that aim to transform Australia into leading space power”, said Janice Starzyk, VP of Government Relations, Virgin Orbit on why Australia was chosen to add to Virgin Orbit’s list of launch sites.    

“When an ecosystem like this developed across commercial and government verticals, these segments feed off of each other, and ultimately create a vibrant marketplace.”

New Launch Capability

2022 saw NASA launch three sub orbital rockets from Equatorial Launch’s, Arnhem Space Centre. Credit: NASA.

“This is part of a long-term investment strategy into the airport, to develop the area as an advanced technology and aerospace hub for the region,” said Wagner about the project.  

In pursuing their joint mission to revolutionize the space industry in Australia, Virgin Orbit and Wagner Corporation are exploring the potential to certify Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport as a national spaceport to perform an orbital launch demonstration. 

Currently, Australia has three main launch sites either in development or in use. Equatorial Launch’s, Arnhem Space Centre, was used earlier this year to successfully launch 3 sub-orbital rockets for NASA. Southern Launch is developing the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex near Port Lincoln, South Australia and Queensland’s Gilmore Space Technologies is supporting a launch site at Abbot Point near Bowen.

Drawing on regional and local expertise from Wagner Corporation and on launch and mission expertise from Virgin Orbit, this collaboration will focus its initial efforts on tailoring LauncherOne operations from Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport to comply with Australian launch licensing regulatory requirements and spaceport-specific operations.

“Once we have gone through the approval process then they can start launching satellites from here. It is proven technology and very successful. It will also be a great sovereign opportunity for Australia, the reality is we need more multinational companies to come to Australia,” said Wagner.

“Virgin Orbit has been evaluating prospective launch sites in Australia for a number of years and believes that the Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport is the most promising. When surveying sites, Virgin Orbit evaluated the orbital access they provide for a horizontal launch system, the airport’s compatibility with 747 air-launch operations, the strength of the local industrial ecosystem, utility for Defence activities, and engagement by the local government on space issues,” added Starzyk.  

Virgin Orbit

LauncherOne being loaded on to the Cosmic Girl 747. Credit: Virgin Orbit.

June 2021 saw the first successful commercial launch for Virgin Orbit, with the Tubular Bells: Part One mission. This mission, which utilised the company's 747 aircraft, Cosmic Girl, saw LauncherOne, deploy its payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).   

Virgin Orbit has now completed four successful missions with the latest mission, Straight Up, taking place in July this year. This mission was the first night mission for the company and deployed seven satellites into LEO for the United States Space Force. 

LauncherOne has the capability to launch payloads of up to 500kg in LEO and 200 kilograms into a variety of other destinations including, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), cis-lunar space, and interplanetary destinations via enhanced third stage capabilities.

It is this deployment method that makes Virgin Orbit’s business plan pretty unique in the satellite launch world — utilising the 747 means that Virgin Orbit’s customers can have greater access to a range of different latitudes. By adding the Wellcamp site to its list of launch locations, Virgin Orbit will be able to provide even greater access to space. 

According to Starzyk, there are significant benefits to air launch over similar ground launch systems. “With our ability to access any orbit by flying to the optimal drop point, we can access low, mid, and high-inclinations from Queensland. “In comparison, our analysis suggests that reaching the same orbits would require 2-3 fixed sites spread across Australia, requiring greater investment,” she said. 

“Second, air-launch systems are more resilient to weather-induced and range safety delays; and actually demonstrated our resilience to weather during our ‘Above the Clouds’ launch earlier this year.”

“Third, air-launch systems provide the most responsive launch because of our flexibility to perform rapid mission planning, change out encapsulated payloads prior to take-off, quickly recycle between launches, and mobilize to any airport with a long enough runway.” 

“Fourth, we are much more environmentally friendly when compared to traditional ground launches as air-launch systems emit ~90% less carbon (smoke and soot) onto local areas, sound pollution is ~94% less, and the use of existing airport infrastructure avoids the construction of launch pads in wetland areas with wildlife; most importantly, we have the flexibility to avoid performing any launch activities over the great barrier reef,” she said. 

Earlier this year Virgin Orbit announced plans to procure a further two 747 aircraft for the program, with plans to modify them to also carry the LauncherOne satellite deployment rocket. 

“At Virgin Orbit, we look to a day soon when satellites fly to space from Australia,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “We’re thrilled to be working alongside Wagner Corporation, one of the region’s most successful privately-owned companies, to bring the first national orbital launch to Australia. Combining their deep knowledge of infrastructure development and affinity for aerospace with our proven, responsive LauncherOne system, we have all the ingredients to bring spaceflight to Queensland.” 

Wellcamp Defence and Aerospace Precinct

Virgin Orbit will be joining a high technology manufacturing facility for building the un-crewed Ariel Vehicle (UAV), Ghost Bat, from Boeing. Credit: Boeing.

“Wagner Corporation and Virgin Orbit are keen to work with the various Australian regulators to progress the facility and launch licenses for LauncherOne activities at Toowoomba Wellcamp.  This will in turn allow us to perform a demonstration launch as early as 2024, showcasing that this capability is attainable, which will ultimately allow us to establish a national launch capability in Australia,” said Starzyk.

This time last year, Boeing announced that they would be setting up a company’s first aircraft assembly facility of its kind outside of North America at Wellcamp Airport. The facility will produce and assemble the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (also known as the GhostBat), the first military combat aircraft designed, developed and manufactured in Australia in half a century.

With plans to bring more multinational companies to Wellcamp, Wagner has a long-term vision for the site. “This aerospace and defense precinct will be absolutely state of the art. We have a commitment to be carbon neutral or climate positive by the end of 2024,” concluded Wagner.