Virgin Orbit successfully launches its first night mission

Virgin Orbit launched seven satellites using its LauncherOne system last night, Friday, July 1, in its first nighttime launch. While other companies like SpaceX or Rocket Lab use rockets for such launches, Virgin Orbit attaches a booster to a modified aircraft that carries it to 30,000 feet before releasing it. The booster then makes the rest of the journey into orbit and deploys its payload.

LauncherOne took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 10:50 pm PT, with the satellites at 12:55 am PT on Saturday, July 2. If you’d like to watch the launch, you can see a replay of the livestream below or on Virgin Orbit’s YouTube channel:

“Congraulations to our team for another successful mission to space today!” the company wrote on Twitter. “We have a total of seven customer satellites into Low Earth Orbit as planned.” This was the company’s fourth commercial mission, following its previous satellite deployment mission in January this year.

Virgin Orbit

The mission on Friday was for the US Space Force and seven satellite agencies from various government. These payloads include the Compact Total Irradiance Monitor-Flight Demonstration (CTIM) small satellite, which will measure how much total energy is coming from the sun to Earth — a factor called “total solar irradiance.” This is important for modeling the global climate, especially in the context of climate change.

“By far the dominant energy input to Earth’s climate comes from the Sun,” said the principal investigator for the project, Dave Harber of the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a statement. “It’s a key input for predictive models forecasting how Earth’s climate might change over time.”

The CTIM system is very small — it’s a shoebox-sized satellite called a CubeSat — and it is designed to test whether such tiny satellites can provide useful scientific data even when measuring big factors like total solar irradiance. Previous instruments for measuring total solar irradiance, like the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) instrument on the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) satellite, are much larger. If it’s possible to get the same quality of measurements from a smaller satellite, it will be cheaper and simpler to continue measuring this important factor into the future.

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