ANA And Virgin Orbit Partner For Launches From Japan

The parent company of Japanese carrier ANA, ANA Holdings, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Virgin Orbit, which will see twenty flights of the LauncherOne rocket from Japan. ANA Holdings’ involvement will see it manufacture mobile ground support equipment to prepare the satellite launching system for flight from a pre-existing runway.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747-400, named “Cosmic Girl,” is tasked with taking the LauncherOne rocket up to altitude. Photo: Virgin Orbit

More often than not, satellites have been sent into space using rockets launched from the ground. However, an alternate method has been to launch rockets from aircraft- a “flying launchpad.” A key benefit to this is the flexibility to fly around weather conditions, as well as fly to better launch points at any time. While air-launch-to-orbit has been performed by several organizations, Virgin Orbit is commercializing the process. Here’s what the firm’s website has to say about its advantage:

“No need to worry about traffic jams at crowded spaceports. With us, you can skip the line and get to your orbit on your own schedule. Don’t go out of business waiting for your ride to space.”

Bringing air-launch to the Eastern Hemisphere

Something we’ve covered in a good amount of detail, Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747-400 (“Cosmic Girl”) is the aircraft tasked with taking its LauncherOne vehicle up to altitude. The company notes that Cosmic Girl “has multiple launch locations across the globe from which she can take off, with our first few missions flying out of the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California.” Virgin Orbit adds that having a number of different launch sites gives it easy access to orbits that would otherwise be more challenging to reach for traditional launch systems.

LauncherOne fits snug below the wing of the 747-400, between the aircraft’s number two engine and the fuselage. Photo: Virgin Orbit

With all of this in mind, a deal has been struck with ANA Holdings to have Virgin Orbit launches take place in southern Japan, in the Oita Prefecture. The agreement consists of a plan to procure twenty flights of the LauncherOne rocket with ANA Holdings, as well as several of its partners, to fund the manufacturing of new mobile ground support equipment used to prepare Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system for flight from a pre-existing runway.

“ANA is excited to work with Virgin Orbit to offer responsive launch and space solutions services to customers in Japan. Demand for satellite launches in Japan and Asia is rapidly increasing, and it is hoped that the number of launches will be desired from the customers.” – Koji Shibata, Representative Director and Executive Vice President, ANA Group

Oita’s (OIT) location relative to other Virgin Orbit sites of Mojave and Long Beach in the United States. Photo:

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Why Oita, Japan?

In an April 2020 statement, Virgin Orbit noted that Oita Prefecture is widely recognized in Japan as “a hub for numerous high-tech ecosystems, including the steel, petrochemical, semiconductor, and automobile industries.”

ANA notes that available launch services in Japan -and throughout all of Asia – have always been launched from fixed sites on the ground. However, this partnership between ANA Holdings and Virgin Orbit will change this by bringing air-launch to the Eastern Hemisphere for the first time in history.

The goal is to make Oita a “LauncherOne-ready spaceport by as soon as the end of 2022”, pending appropriate regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan.

Cosmic Girl is set to take off with its payload from other airports around the world. It’s photographed here taking off from Mojave against a backdrop of retired jets- including some from ANA. Photo: Virgin Orbit

It’s not just Japan that Virgin Orbit is looking to work with. Indeed, in 2020 the UK Space Agency announced a multi-million dollar grant to facilitate horizontal launches from Spaceport Cornwall. Going further back, Virgin Orbit revealed in April 2019 that it would also conduct launches from Andersen Air Force Base on the Pacific island of Guam. “Virgin Orbit is working closely with multiple governments and international organizations interested in establishing launch capabilities closer to home,” it said last year.

Are you looking forward to potentially seeing Cosmic Girl take-off from an airport near you? Let us know by leaving a comment.