Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit lands Space Force contract

Satellite launching firm is a subsidiary of Branson's Virgin Group

Virgin Orbit, a private firm owned by Sir Richard Branson that launches satellites into space, has secured a $35 million contract with the U.S. Space Force, the company announced Friday.

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The contract was awarded to VOX Space, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit that conducts satellite launches for U.S. military and national security branches. VOX Space will conduct three missions for the U.S. Space Force, launching dozens of small satellites that the newly formed sixth U.S. military branch will use to enable “advancements in space domain awareness and communications and informing future developments of the USSF space architecture”

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“With the space domain more contested than ever, it’s crucial that we find ways to enable those responsible for space security to act quickly and effectively,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement. “Ultimately, we believe that affordable and responsive launch helps keep everyone safer — in part by creating a major disincentive for adversaries to work against existing satellites and space systems.”

The first satellite launches could occur by October 2021, the company added. Virgin Orbit developed the “LauncherOne” service, which uses modified 747 airliners to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit.

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The Virgin Group subsidiary conducted a test flight of its LauncherOne system earlier this week.

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“We’re very eager to bring a new standard of flexibility in launch to the U.S. national security community with LauncherOne,” VOX Space President Mandy Vaughn said regarding the Space Force contract. “We see the STP-S28 mission as an excellent example of how cutting-edge commercial launch systems like ours can enable the U.S. Space Force to execute missions in a way that’s more tactically responsive.

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Virgin Orbit is a privately owned subsidiary of Branson’s holding company, Virgin Group. The aerospace firm is a separate entity from Virgin Galactic, Branson’s commercial space tourism company, which is traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange and aims to bring civilians into space. Virgin Group holds a 33 percent stake in Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic shares surged more than 20 percent in trading Tuesday and are up more than 40 percent so far this month. Since Virgin Orbit has no direct business ties to Galactic, it was unclear if the surge was related to traders making erroneous connections between the two firms.

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