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A Virgin Orbit flight named after Paula Abdul’s breakthrough hit “Straight Up” successfully carried seven Department of Defense satellites into space, including an experimental space vehicle designed and built at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The Air Force Research Laboratory announced last week that its Recurve satellite, which was made at Kirtland, was one of several satellites launched into low-earth orbit by the Virgin Orbit space system from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California earlier this month.
The space vehicle was launched using a system similar to the one Virgin Galactic used to launch passengers into space from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico last year. Essentially, the satellites were launched from an aircraft already at altitude.
The mission was significant for several reasons, including that it is a cost-effective way for the Department of Defense to launch several satellites into space at the same time, said Lt. Col. David Johnson, AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate’s Integrated Experiments and Evaluations division chief.
“At the end of the day, the Space Force is looking into what’s going to be the most cost-effective way to get the things that we need to get to orbit to orbit,” he said.
Johnson said researchers at Kirtland have been working on the Recurve satellite for four years and have several months’ worth of experiments planned for the small satellite, including some related to communications between satellites and electronics on the ground. The satellite is expected to be operational for up to one year, he said.
The craft is about the size of a desktop computer monitor plus additional solar panels and it will remain in low-earth orbit, which is about 400 to 1,000 miles above ground.
Recurve was one of seven payloads that Virgin Orbit launched into space earlier this month for the U.S. Space Force’s Rocket Systems Launch Program. The space vehicles were created as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program.
It was a nighttime launch, taking off at 10:50 p.m. July 1 and finishing just before 1 a.m. July 2.
“There is so much potential benefit for everyone from space if we just manage it well together,” Virgin Orbit founder Richard Branson said after the launch. “We are delighted for the opportunity to work with the U.S. government to help make space a safe and fruitful environment for all.”
The Virgin Orbit mission was dubbed “Straight Up,” which was inspired by the hit song from Abdul’s debut studio album, “Forever Your Girl.” The album was released through Virgin Records in 1988. It was the most successful debut album ever at the time of its release.
Matt Shelnutt, a spokesman for Virgin Orbit, said in an email that all seven satellites were successfully launched into orbit. It marked the company’s first nighttime launch. The company has now launched 33 satellites into space, he said.