14 October 2019 News

First dedicated commercial smallsat mission to Mars unveiled

A rendering of Virgin orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrying LauncherOne. Image: Cosmic Girl
A rendering of Virgin orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrying LauncherOne. Image: Cosmic Girl

Sir Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit has teamed up with Poland-based satellite company SatRevolution and scientists and engineers from nearly a dozen Polish universities to establish a new consortium with an aim to carry out the world’s first dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars.

With a proposed launch date expected as early as 2022 for the first-of-its-kind CubeSat mission to Mars, the consortium could jointly develop and launch a total of three CubeSats all destined for the Red Planet.

“Polish scientists and engineers are ready to develop the first ever interplanetary scientific CubeSat mission. This mission will galvanise the Polish space sector and mark its position on the international arena. The project will accelerate the development of small satellites and of lightweight space science instrument technology. We want Poland to be ‘the go-to’ country for small interplanetary spacecraft,” said Grzegorz Zwoliński, SatRevolution president.

The mission will utilise Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, an air-launch to orbit rocket designed to loft smallsat payloads of 300 kilograms into a Sun-synchronous orbit.

Although LauncherOne has not made any flights into orbit yet, the company are pushing hard in preparing for a test flight expected later this year. The firm, which has said it wants to conduct missions of LauncherOne from the Cornwall Spaceport in Newquay on the southern tip of England by 2021, had a successful “drop test” of its rocket from its dedicated 747-400 carrier aircraft called “Cosmic Girl” in July.

“Virgin Orbit is thrilled to join this consortium, as it speaks directly to our mantra of ‘opening space for everyone’,” said Virgin Orbit’s Vice President of Business Development Stephen Eisele. “Given Poland’s strong foundation in engineering and sciences, government and academia in the country would benefit greatly from the increased access to space afforded by flexible, dedicated launch platforms like LauncherOne. We have already seen the incredible utility of small satellites here in Earth Orbit, and we’re thrilled to start providing dedicated launches to deep space. We’re proud to enable a new wave of Polish creativity and innovation in space.”

The CubeSat’s will be designed and built by SatRevolution, who have already sent its Światowid spacecraft, Poland’s first commercial nanosatellite, into orbit last year.

These, of course will not be the first small satellites to visit another planet. Last year NASA demonstrated that show-boxed sized craft could survive the long and harsh journey to another planet when its twin communications-relay CubeSats – MarCO-A and MarCO-B – successfully relayed data to Earth from Insight as it landed on the Martian surface.

However, these diminutive duo weighed just 13.5 kilograms, as their main function was to broadcast radio signals. The consortium’s CubeSats are likely to perform more complex tasks such as taking images of Mars and as such will need to be bigger.

Nonetheless, preliminary work conducted by the consortium has shown that they could still keep the spacecraft under 50 kilograms even when collecting scientific data on the Martian atmosphere for example or when performing even more ambitious tasks such as looking for underground water reservoirs on Mars.

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