For the first time today, Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket into orbit, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and delivered them successfully on behalf of NASA to low-Earth orbit. For the small satellite launch business, it is a crucial achievement, and the company has demonstrated for the first time that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as planned, which could set the company up very quickly to begin commercial operations of its launch system.
This is the second attempt to reach orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first attempt in late May ended with the automatic safety shutdown of its engines by the LauncherOne rocket shortly after the detachment of a modified Boeing 747 from the ‘Cosmic Child’ carrier aircraft that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said it learned a lot from that attempt, including finding the mistake that caused the fail-safe engine to shut down, which it corrected before the mission today.
At just before 2 p.m., Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off. EST, and then released LauncherOne at around 2:40 p.m. from its wing. EST. Est. As expected, LauncherOne had a “clean separation,” and then ignited its own rocket engines and rapidly accelerated to the point where the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure was encountered (called max q in the aerospace industry). After its burn, LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off, and its payload stage split, crossing the Karman line and for the first time entering space.
It entered orbit at around 2:49 p.m. EST and launched the satellite payload to their target orbit on schedule sometime later, rendering the project a total success.
In the small launch market, Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition is that, thanks to its carrier aircraft and midair rocket launch approach, it can take off and land from traditional runways. In terms of launch locations, this should provide flexibility, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geography and target orbital deliveries.
Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017 to focus exclusively on the orbital launch of small payloads. Virgin Galactic then dedicated herself completely to her own mission of providing human spaceflight commercially. Earlier this year, Virgin Orbit itself formed its own subsidiary, called VOX Space, which plans to use LauncherOne to deliver small orbiting satellites exclusively for the U.S. national security market.