Spaceflight Insider

NASA awards Venture Class contracts to Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit

Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

NASA has awarded launch contracts to two launch providers, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, whose rockets carry smaller payloads than the traditional workhorse rockets used to orbit uncrewed spacecraft and satellites.

With technology continuously making space hardware lighter and smaller, the new CubeSats being built today are quite capable of making scientific studies and testing new spacecraft technologies. NASA is looking to further utilize these low cost platforms.

Rocket-Lab-Still-Testing-launch-21-January-2018 Photo Credit Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab successfully launched its second Electron rocket Jan. 21, 2018. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

In order to keep CubeSat costs effective, they are traditionally launched as a secondary payloads on larger launchers such as the United Launch Alliance Atlas V or SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

The new Venture Class contracts puts these low-cost payloads onto smaller, lower-cost launchers. Each rocket could allow NASA to send approximately 12 CubeSats into orbit without having to be constrained to a certain trajectory when flying as a secondary payload. This could give NASA the ability to send CubSat payloads into orbits that are best suited to accomplish particular missions or perform the scientific research they were designed for.

Currently NASA has awarded one contract to Rocket Lab of Huntington Beach, California, and one contract to Virgin Orbit of Long Beach, California. If the first missions are successful, NASA already has options with both companies to purchase additional flights.

“In addition to providing a dedicated ride to space for small satellites, we’re supporting the continued evolution of the U.S. commercial space launch market,” said Jim Norman, director of Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’re excited to see theses launches of a “venture class” rocket for NASA carrying only small payloads later this year.”

For each of the first two demonstration launches, NASA’s small cube-shaped spacecraft are approximately 4 inches long and weigh right around 3 pounds each.

According to a NASA press release, unlike the development of its commercial providers launch vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket, the venture class contract is a very hands-off approach from NASA’s usual role.

The agency’s Launch Services Program (LSP) team made their technical feedback and systems engineering practices available to both companies, but NASA has chosen a “light touch” with these two emerging companies.

Visualization of Virgin Galactic 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' with LauncherOne under its wing

A visualization of a Virgin Galactic 747-400 “Cosmic Girl” with LauncherOne under its wing. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Rocket Lab, which uses a ground launched rocket named Electron, is preparing to launch it’s first flight for NASA this summer. The CubeSats that NASA has provided have already been processed through Rocket Lab’s Huntington Beach facility and are ready for flight. They should be transported to the launch site at a later date.

The Electron rocket is powered by nine liquid oxygen and kerosene consuming Rutherford engines and is capable of carrying a maximum payload of 496 pounds (225 kilograms) into orbit. The two stage rocket is only 55 feet (17 meters) tall and just less than 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter.

Substantial weight savings were achieved by utilizing carbon composites in the construction of the fairing and also the development of carbon composite liquid oxygen tank, Rocket Lab said.

The vehicle’s first successful flight launched in January of this year and placed its payloads into the desired orbit. Its’ first launch occurred in May 2017, however it did not achieve orbit.

A third launch was scheduled for April 2018, however it was postponed to allow the engineers to evaluate what was termed as “unusual motor controller behavior” during a pre-launch test called a “wet dress rehearsal” where the vehicle is fully fueled. At the time of this writing a new launch window has not been announced.

Taking a different approach, Virgin Orbit is utilizing an air launched system for their expendable rocket.

Its new, and still un-flown LauncherOne rocket is designed to be carried underneath the wing of its carrier aircraft, a 747-400 that the company has christened “Cosmic Girl,” to an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet where it is released from the aircraft just prior to booster ignition.

The Launcher One rocket is also fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene but being an air based launcher it should be able to put payloads into many different orbits as the launch can occur from virtually any place around the globe.




Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.

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