Tech

Virgin Orbit halts test flights as Covid-19 cases surge


The Los Angeles-based startup, which hopes to blast satellites into orbit via a rocket that launches from the beneath the wing of a 747 airliner, said in a series of tweets that as infection rates “skyrocket” in the area, Virgin Orbit’s contact tracing has put so many employees into “precautionary quarantines” that the company does not have enough staff to support an upcoming test flight of its LauncherOne rocket.

The company said that it has followed safety protocols at its facilities. Virgin Orbit said a “few” of its team members had tested positive, though none of the cases had been transmitted between employees.
The infection rate in Los Angeles County, as in numerous localities across the United States, has risen sharply since Thanksgiving. And though the first vaccinations are being issued to health care workers on Monday, healthy adults under the age of 65 and children may have to wait well into 2021 before vaccines become available.

Virgin Orbit, like other space technology companies in the United States, is permitted to continue operations throughout the pandemic because the government deemed the space sector part of the country’s “critical infrastructure” in March. As one industry group argued, the sector’s commercial activity is also intertwined with crucial US national security projects and NASA programs.

Virgin Orbit’s planned test launch was to be the company’s second attempt to put its LauncherOne rocket into Earth’s orbit. An earlier test launch in May was cut short when the rocket’s engine shut down shortly after it detached from its mothership, a Boeing 747 aircraft nicknamed Cosmic Girl. The rocket was left to plummet into the Pacific Ocean.
Over the past several months, Virgin Orbit said it conducted several ground tests, one of which involved shipping a LauncherOne rocket to rural Mojave, California — where its sister company, space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, also has facilities — and mounting it on a test stand meant to emulate Cosmic Girl’s wing. Engineers then fueled the rocket and ran through all the steps the rocket would take during an actual test flight, and the company deemed it a “major success.”
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Virgin Orbit spun off from Virgin Galactic, which is focused on sending tourists on suborbital flights that reach about 50 miles high, in 2017.

Virgin Orbit then said it was aiming to conduct a second test launch before the end of the year, and a Federal Aviation Administration-certified launch was scheduled for this weekend.

But the company said after finishing a contact tracing effort last Friday, it decided to halt a final fueling test of its rocket midway through that operation so managers could make a “clear-sighted assessment before moving forward.”

“Given the timelines associated with accurate Covid-19 testing results, this will impact our launch schedule,” according to a tweet posted to Virgin Orbit’s account. “We are assessing that impact now. We will be ready to fly soon, but the health of our team and their families remains at the forefront of our decisions.”





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