January 20, 2021

EOC supports with DLR’s Antarctic station new aerial based rocket launch

The first few minutes after a rocket launch are decisive. Was the intended orbit reached? On behalf of Virgin Orbit, EOC provided support for the take-off of LauncherOne using its ground station in the Antarctic, the German Antarctic Receiving Station GARS O’Higgins. It was that company’s second so-called air launch.

Virgin Orbit is one of the companies of the British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. It wants to offer for satellite launches a rapid, flexible and affordable alternative to existing launchers. On Sunday, January 17, a modified Boeing 747-400 named Cosmic Girl took off from California as Virgin Orbit’s mobile rocket platform. It carried under its wings a rocket with 10 Cube-Sat satellites on board.

Cosmic Girl carried under its wings a rocket with 10 Cube-Sat satellites on board

The rocket, christened LauncherOne, was released and ignited at high altitude, and with the help of a two-stage launch it successfully reached the intended orbit.

The first few post-launch minutes brought LauncherOne on its orbit to a location over the EOC receiving station at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. For that reason, Virgin Orbit had commissioned EOC to verify the launcher orbit and provide precise tracking data for the next contact over Mauritius. An EOC staff member on location at O’Higgins took the bearings of the commercial launcher based on previously calculated orbit data in order to give Virgin Orbit the relieving message.

Virgin Orbit then twittered, “Just heard from our dish at O'Higgins in Antarctica. The upper stage is still on track and systems are looking nominal.”

Since November 30 the O’Higgins station has been again routinely staffed by DLR colleagues who handle satellite data reception as well as station maintenance and alterations. The acquisition of LauncherOne data was supported by colleagues at the Bavarian home office, who maintained contact with Virgin Orbit and took care of the data delivery.

In future, the modernized GARS O’Higgins ground station is also to be used more intensively for such telemetry and telecommand tasks (TT&C). In addition to national earth observation and science satellites O’Higgins is especially attractive because of the growing number of already orbiting satellite constellations or those planned by many young start-up companies.


Maximilian Schwinger

Head of Department
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
German Remote Sensing Data Center (DFD)
International Ground Segment
Oberpfaffenhofen, 82234 Weßling
Tel: +49 8153 28-1418