Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit and Polish satellite company SatRevolution have teamed up to launch what they hope will be the world's first commercial small satellite mission to Mars, the companies said in a Wednesday press release. The consortium -- which also includes several Polish technical universities -- will develop the first of up to three Mars missions, with the initial one planned for as early as 2022 .
Only four organizations have completed Mars missions, the release noted. The success last year of NASA's Mars Cube One spacecraft, only about the size of a briefcase, demonstrated that small, more affordable spacecraft can play a role in exploring the Red Planet. Early research performed by the companies found that spacecraft of just 50 kg or less can be used for tasks like collecting photos of Mars and its moon Phobos, analyzing the Martian atmosphere, and even looking for underground reservoirs of water, the release said.
The mission will fly Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, which is now undergoing final preparations for a test flight later this year.
"Virgin Orbit is thrilled to join this consortium, as it speaks directly to our mantra of 'opening space for everyone'," Virgin Orbit's vice president of business development, Stephen Eisele, said in the release. "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."