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Orbital satellite launches on New Mexico’s horizon

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic’s sister company, is building an air-launched system to send small satellites into orbit. (Courtesy of Virgin Orbit)

As Virgin Galactic works to conquer passenger travel to the edge of space from southern New Mexico, Spaceport America is already eyeing the next frontier – launching satellites into low Earth orbit.

Spaceport America CEO Daniel Hicks

Spaceport authorities are actively pursuing that goal, seeking out existing launch companies and new startups to lure them here, while simultaneously planning the administrative and structural measures needed for the state to capture a significant chunk of the emerging small satellite market, said Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks.

“Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights are igniting excitement across the globe and drawing attention to Spaceport America,” Hicks said. “In the near future, orbital launches of small satellites will also drive the spaceport forward. We’re looking now at companies that have those technologies as well.”

Most U.S. orbital launches today are conducted at coastal sites like Cape Canaveral in Florida to protect the public by flying rockets over the sea and away from population centers. This also allows booster rockets to fall back down into the ocean.

But with today’s rapidly developing small satellite technologies, launch vehicles could soon be adapted for places like southern New Mexico, with precision programming for falling debris to land in the vast, isolated spaces around Spaceport America and White Sands Missile Range, Hicks said.

A huge market

“With today’s technologies, we have plenty of areas around the missile range,” Hicks said. “Our analysis shows we can get to low Earth orbit from here. It all depends on the profile of launches.”

Capturing some of that market could provide a huge boost for the Spaceport, offering a lot more bang for the buck on the state’s $220 million investment in the facility.

There’s a lot of business to tap into, because the small satellite industry is considered the wave of the future for terrestrial communications in today’s hyper-connected world.

Some companies are already developing orbital launch systems at Spaceport America’s vertical launch area, which lies southwest of the horizontal runway where Virgin Galactic will operate.

Exos Aerospace is building technology there to launch payloads into low Earth orbit. UP Aerospace is also building a new orbital vehicle there in partnership with NASA, although neither company has yet committed to launch their vehicles from the spaceport.

A new company, SpinLaunch Inc., also announced a $7 million investment this year in a 10,000-square-foot test facility at the spaceport to develop a novel centrifuge system that will literally fling rockets into space, possibly introducing an entirely new way to launch small satellites in the future.

Contacting the operators

“There are about 100 small satellite launch operators in various stages of development,” Hicks said. “We’re approaching many of them now while they work on new technologies to get the spaceport in their sights during their early stages of development.”

To get orbital-launch certification, the spaceport must show the Federal Aviation Administration that rocket trajectory won’t endanger the public.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne during a drop test in July of this year. Virgin Orbit has not yet considered New Mexico for its launches, but it could if the spaceport could accommodate them. (Courtesy of Virgin Orbit)

“You don’t have to be over the sea,” Hicks said. “But you must provide an expected casualty analysis that shows minimal risk to the public.”

The spaceport is now working to develop targeted booster drop zones with White Sands. It will then discuss precision drop technologies with prospective companies.

But more spaceport infrastructure is needed, said Hicks.

The Legislature approved $25 million for upgrades in the last two years, including $19 million this year to pave the roads leading to the vertical launch site and install water, power, fuel delivery capabilities and bunkers there.

Infrastructure needed

“We need that infrastructure to get more companies knocking at our door,” Hicks said.

The Spaceport will seek more money next year for other upgrades, including construction of a welcome center, an IT communications building, a payload integration processing facility and a taxiway alongside the spaceport’s 12,000-foot horizontal runway.

The taxiway is critical to manage traffic as Virgin Galactic starts flying and as the spaceport seeks more horizontal launch operations, Hicks said.

But it could also position the spaceport to capture some business with Virgin Galactic’s sister company, Virgin Orbit, which is building an air-launched system to send small satellites into orbit. The company modified a 747-400 plane to shuttle satellite-carrying rockets under its wing part way to space, allowing the rocket to detach and fire up its engines to shoot into orbit.

Virgin Orbit next?

Virgin Orbit is seeking different launch locations, since its plane-based horizontal takeoff system allows it to operate anywhere, providing unprecedented flexibility for payload customers.

The company hasn’t yet considered New Mexico for launches. But if the spaceport could accommodate them, it might, said William Pomerantz, vice president for special projects.

“We’d be thrilled to go there,” Pomerantz said. “The folks at Spaceport America think they’ll have a safe way to make it happen, but for the moment, we can’t fly there.”

With Virgin Galactic gearing up for passenger flights, it’s generating global publicity that the spaceport hopes will inspire launch operators to locate here.

“Virgin Galactic’s success is an incredible marketing arm for us,” Hicks said. “It gets the world looking at Spaceport America.”

This is part two of a two-part series. Click here to read the first part.