Virgin Orbit’ LauncherOne rocket reached space during the company’s second launch demonstration, successfully delivering 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program on Sunday.
The California-based satellite launch company has a different system which uses “air launch,” through which a rocket is launched from under the wing of a jet plane.
Virgin Orbit’s horizontal launch is rare in the world of vertical launch from the Earth.
Air launch enables increased payload and the technique allows the LauncherOne flexibility responsiveness, for example launching on short notice and from various locations to access any orbit.
Sunday’s event included Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a customized 747-400 called Cosmic Girl, which departed Mojave Air and Space Port at around 10:50 A.M. and flew to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean, roughly 50 miles south of Channel Islands.
The release went well and subsequently the two-stage rocket ignited and powered itself to orbit.
At the conclusion of the flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats into the team’s precise target orbit, marking a major step forward for Virgin Orbit in its quest to break barriers preventing affordable and responsive access to space.
Onboard LauncherOne were NASA LSP payloads as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. Almost all of the CubeSat missions were designed, built and tested by universities across the U.S., including Brigham Young University (PICS), the University of Michigan (MiTEE), and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (CAPE-3).
The event also is considered a first in that it is believed no orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space before today.
“A new gateway to space has just sprung open,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO. “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 Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible,” said Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder. “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,” Branson said. “I can’t wait to see the incredible missions Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good.”
The company’s rockets are built in its Long Beach manufacturing plant.
Virgin Orbit’s customers include the U.S. Space Force, the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.