Scientists and engineers from nearly a dozen Polish universities have teamed up with Poland-based satellite company SatRevolution and Sir Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit to establish a new consortium to design and carry out the world’s first dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars. The parties established the consortium at a formal signing ceremony during the Impact Mobility’19 rEVolution conference in Katowice, Poland.
The consortium will jointly develop the first in a series of up to three Mars missions, with the initial launch expected as early as three years from now.
To date, only four organizations have successfully completed Mars missions. But as the twin MarCO spacecraft—designed and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—proved in 2018, smaller and more affordable spacecraft can successfully contribute to the exploration of the Red Planet. Preliminary work conducted by the consortium has shown that spacecraft as small as 50 kg or less can be used for a broad range of opportunities for scientific study, such as collecting imagery of Mars and its moon Phobos, analyzing the Martian atmosphere, or even such an ambitious endeavor as looking for underground reservoirs of water.
Poland’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Technology, Jadwiga Emilewicz, voiced the government’s great enthusiasm for Polish space exploration, saying, “To me, it is only fitting that the nation of Copernicus should play an important part of the humanity’s understanding of our solar system. To that end, in 2014, we established the Polish Space Agency (POLSA), which was given the specific task of supporting the growing Polish space industry by combining the world of business and science. But the future looks even brighter. Having already proven that Polish science and engineering can lead successful missions in Earth orbit, we are now looking further out into the heavens – just as Copernicus once did.”
At the core of the consortium are many of the top technical universities in Poland. AGH University of Science and Technology, Wrocław University of Science and Technology, Poznań University of Technology, Gdańsk University of Technology, Lódz University of Technology, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, and Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences have each signed on to take part in the collaborative program. Leadership from these universities see the consortium and the missions it will conduct as an unprecedented opportunity for growth and development across many technical disciplines, in addition to creating opportunities for commercialization.
SatRevolution, headquartered in Wroclaw and specializing in complete satellite solutions, will be primarily responsible for the design and manufacturing of the small satellite, providing its basic subsystems. In April 2019, SatRevolution sent its Światowid spacecraft into Earth orbit, Poland’s first commercial nanosatellite.
“Polish scientists and engineers are ready to develop the first ever interplanetary scientific CubeSat mission. This mission will galvanize the Polish space sector and mark its position on the international arena. The project will accelerate the development of small satellites and of lightweight space science instrument technology. We want Poland to be ‘the go-to’ country for small interplanetary spacecraft,” said Grzegorz Zwoliński, SatRevolution president.
The mission will fly on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, a responsive air-launch platform capable of operating from spaceports around the world. LauncherOne rockets are made in the U.S. in Long Beach, California, and are deployed from a dedicated 747-400 carrier aircraft. Virgin Orbit’s first orbital rocket is currently undergoing final checkouts and preparation for a test flight expected later this year.
“Virgin Orbit is thrilled to join this consortium, as it speaks directly to our mantra of ‘opening space for everyone’,” said Virgin Orbit’s Vice President of Business Development Stephen Eisele. “Given Poland’s strong foundation in engineering and sciences, government and academia in the country would benefit greatly from the increased access to space afforded by flexible, dedicated launch platforms like LauncherOne. We have already seen the incredible utility of small satellites here in Earth Orbit, and we’re thrilled to start providing dedicated launches to deep space. We’re proud to enable a new wave of Polish creativity and innovation in space.”