Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit said Thursday it plans to bring its satellite launch system to Japan in partnership with airline operator ANA Holdings Inc., which will provide maintenance and possibly aircraft.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system is undergoing testing with the aim of launching rockets bearing small satellites into space from a modified jumbo jet. The company said it will conduct its first orbital test flight later this year.
Separately, Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, overcame years of delays to launch rocket planes to the edge of space in test missions in December and February. The latter flight carried a test passenger — chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses — for the first time, nudging the company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists.
Branson is racing against competitors such as Blue Origin, the space business of Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to carry tourists into space. Branson has said he plans to be the first passenger on a commercial flight in mid-2019, though the timeline has seen some movement.
Virgin Orbit, which aims to offer launch services for small satellites, and ANA Holdings, the parent of All Nippon Airways (ANA), said in a joint statement that they will identify a launch site together with Space Port Japan, an industry-backed body that aims to turn Japan into a space business hub.
The space venture has already announced launch sites in the United States, Guam, the U.K. and Italy.
Japan’s space industry extends from large scale government-backed rocket launches by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. — which launched the Michibiki satellite navigation system — to Interstellar Technologies, a startup backed by internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie that last month launched its first rocket to reach space.