Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket successfully reached space last weekend during the company’s second launch test and deployed 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program.
According to Virgin orbit, the test flight is the first time an orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space. The company’s first test launch, conducted in May 2020, malfunctioned and shut down shortly after launching.
California-based Virgin Orbit’s rockets carry small satellites into orbit. It is the sister company to Virgin Galactic, which is developing passenger-carrying spaceships for space-tourism.
Both companies use an air-launch system, where instead of using a launch pad, a carrier aircraft carries a payload-carrying rocket to a high altitude and then launches it. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is a 70ft long, 57,000 lb (25,800kg) rocket designed to travel at speeds of up to 20 times the speed of sound (17,000mph) and can carry small satellites, such as communications and weather satellites of up to 660 lbs (300kg).
Only one other air launch system is currently operational in the world, Northrup Grumman’s Pegasus system, although this has not operated since October 2019.
Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a modified 747-400 called Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately at 10:50am on Sunday, January 17 and flew out to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles south of the Channel Islands. After a smooth release from the aircraft, the two-stage rocket ignited and powered itself to orbit.
At the conclusion of the flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats into orbit, for NASA’s Launch Services Program. The CubeSat missions were designed, built and tested by universities across the USA, including Brigham Young University, the University of Michigan and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said, “A new gateway to space has just sprung open! That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity.
“Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson said, “Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit.
“This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit. I can’t wait to see the incredible missions Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good,”
Virgin Orbit next launches will be commercial. As well as defense organisations such as the US Space Force and the UK’s Royal Air Force, commercial companies such as Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace have so far signed up for launches.