Virgin Orbit is currently carrying out a test of the new Space Shuttle called the Space Shuttle Polar Cap. The Polar Cap is a solid piece of metal, whose main function is to act as a radiator for heat shielding material of the space shuttle during flight. This will allow the solid metal to heat shield the interior of the vehicle from high-altitude temperatures which would otherwise damage or destroy the vehicle's interior. During this process, the insulation of the vehicle is "bonded" together to provide extra strength to the vehicle structure.
It was also announced that the first ever mission using the new vehicle will be the first ever launch of a VOS kerosene construction. A construction of this type would be used to build the base of a future reusable launch vehicle. The test campaign will also assess whether the thermal blanket on the VOS can provide adequate protection to the engine in an emergency situation.
Sutherland Centre and Testing
In addition to carrying out tests at the centre, Virgin Orbit also plans to test two more reusable launch vehicles at their facilities at White Sands, New Mexico. One of these test launches will use a stretched polymer shroud to test the vehicle's thermal blanket and insulation. The second vehicle test will use an aluminium shroud which is stretched over the vehicle's launch window. The aim of the test campaign is to determine if it is possible to launch the vehicle into orbit with the help of its thermal blankets. The test would compare the performance of a stretched polyurethane blanket with that of an aluminium-carbonate windshield which is not protected by a thermal blanket.
In this way the team will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of both types of constructions. Once the team have made the assessment, they will be able to recommend the most suitable choice for VOS. If this recommendation is successful then manufacturing of the vehicle would be started almost immediately. Two companies in the United Kingdom are involved in the development process of VOS, namely subcontractors Astraware and ABB. The first phase of testing is aimed at evaluating the vehicle's structural integrity. Once the structural integrity is verified the next phase is going to be focused on acoustic testing, which will determine if the vehicle's sound waves can withstand high G forces during take off and landing.
Orbital Sutherland Centre
The team is also testing the vehicle's cryogenic stage, which is crucial for the vehicle's success. This stage is manufactured using special moulds developed by Astraware. The moulds are used to produce the vehicle's skin. Once completed the skin is slowly cooled and painted. The final stage is cooling down and preparing the vehicle's structure for its solidification at the VOS manufacturing facility. The tests conducted at the Sutherland Centre are part of Virgin's long-term contract with the United Kingdom's Department of Transport (DOT).
The testing conducted at the centre is just one phase of the whole vehicle manufacturing process, however. During manufacturing, all mistakes are costly and time consuming. Therefore the testers need to ensure that all errors and tests are properly rectified before the vehicle is released into the hands of clients. For this purpose a series of post-test checks and quality checks are conducted at the plant to guarantee flawless and safe deliveries.