Virgin Orbit plans to send cubesats to Mars as early as 2022

It would be the first private company to reach the Red Planet.

Virgin Orbit plans to be the first private company to send cubesats to Mars. Today, it announced a partnership with the Polish satellite company SatRevolution and a dozen Polish universities to design a series of small-satellite missions to the Red Planet. The first cubesat could launch as early as 2022.

Virgin Orbit is a spinoff of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and is dedicated to low-cost smallsat projects. This new Virgin Orbit endeavor was reportedly inspired by NASA's recent InSight mission, which successfully sent two cubesats to Mars. Now, the company believes it can send its own similar spacecraft (as light as 110 pounds) into deep space using its LauncherOne rocket.

Once the cubesats reach the planet, they may take photos, study the atmosphere or look for water. Eventually, Virgin Orbit may examine the moons of Mars, Venus and "maybe a couple of the asteroids in the asteroid belt," Will Pomerantz, the vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, told The Verge.

Virgin Orbit will have to complete its LauncherOne rocket first. The 70-foot-long rocket will be dropped from Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 carrier, dubbed "Cosmic Girl." The rocket will then blast off from mid-air. LauncherOne has completed 'captive carry' and drop tests, but it has yet to take its first test flight. The success of these Mars-based cubesat missions will likely depend on LauncherOne.