ANA signs MOU with Virgin

ANA Holdings, owner of ANA All Nippon Airways, is to be the exclusive distributor of Asia’s first air-launch service.

Virgin Orbit, the launch and space solutions company, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with ANA Holdings, the owners of Japan’s largest airline, for 20 flights of the LauncherOne rocket. The terms of the MOU call for ANA and partners to fund the manufacturing of a new set of the mobile ground support equipment used to prepare Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system for flight from a pre-existing runway. The project aims to make Oita Prefecture in southern Japan a LauncherOne-ready spaceport by the end of 2022, pending appropriate regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan.

Launch services in Japan – and across Asia – have in the past used fixed sites. Supported by ANA’s logistics and transport services, Virgin Orbit is set to change that by bringing air-launch to the Eastern Hemisphere for the first time in history.

By using a customised 747 as its flying launch pad, mobile mission control, and fully re-usable first stage, LauncherOne gains a substantial performance boost over a similarly sized ground-launched system. Additionally, the airplane’s ability to cover large distances between taking off and releasing the rocket provides both weather resiliency and direct-inject orbital flexibility that until now, has never been available on the Asian market.

Virgin Orbit’s air-launch service provides a unique capability for ANA’s customer base in the booming commercial ecosystem for space in Asia. The number of space start-ups in Japan has more than doubled since 2015, driven by growing levels of investment and government activities to energize and accelerate the private sector. The increasing amount of funding and investment in the space industry has encouraged start-ups to venture into space businesses, and legacy companies to expand their offerings – and launch is a critical enabler for those businesses and their future growth.

“ANA is a world-class company with an incredible legacy of aerospace innovation, commercial success, and customer satisfaction that makes them an absolutely ideal partner to bring air-launch to Asia,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “We look forward to collaborating to foster the ongoing transformation of the space economy.”