Strap a rocket to the underside of a plane. Fly it up several miles. Drop it. The engine ignites, and the rocket and its payload zoom to space.
That is what Virgin Orbit, one of the multitude of companies started by Richard Branson, tried to do Monday, demonstrating a new rocket system for sending small payloads to orbit. But moments into its first launch attempt, the company said on Twitter that an undisclosed problem brought an early conclusion to the test mission.
During the attempt, a modified 747 named Cosmic Girl carried the rocket, LauncherOne, under its left wing. (Virgin Orbit is taking advantage of a design quirk of the 747: a pylon used to ferry an extra engine.)
Taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port, the plane headed west over the Pacific Ocean and turned south. At an altitude a bit below 35,000 feet, or about 6.5 miles up, Cosmic Girl flew upward at an angle and dropped LauncherOne. A few seconds later, the booster stage of the rocket was to be ignited, allowing the rocket to arc upward into the sky.
Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, noted Saturday that about half of maiden flights do not succeed.
Although unsuccessful, the company said the data gathered would be useful for future launches. The ignition of the rocket engine, for instance — the first time it will have been done in flight and not on a test stand on the ground — is “the key moment in this flight,” Pomerantz said Saturday.
Why launch a rocket from an airplane?
An airplane is essentially a mobile launchpad, enabling rocket launches from many more locations. If there is a thunderstorm, the jet can fly around or over it. And flying over the ocean immediately reduces the risk to people below if the rocket explodes.
“What that gives us is incredible flexibility,” Hart said. “In fact, we have mobility. We can fly to space from any place which can host a 747. Which is almost any place.”
How much can LauncherOne launch?
The two-stage rocket can lift up to 1,100 pounds — Pomerantz said a typical payload would be about 650 pounds — to low Earth orbit. Only smaller satellites can fit within the rocket’s 4-foot-wide payload section. The cost is fairly low, however: about $12 million.
Hart said the company had orders for launches that added up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
LauncherOne is one of a slew of small rockets under development by many companies to carry smaller satellites to low Earth orbit. With advances in computer chips and miniaturization, powerful satellites can now be much smaller than in the past. Competitors include Rocket Lab, which has successfully launched its rockets from New Zealand and has set up a second launchpad in Wallops Island, Virginia.
While Virgin Orbit would be slower than Rocket Lab in getting a payload to orbit, it would be ahead of the other emerging competitors.
Astra, another startup building a small rocket, was poised to win at least part of a $12 million prize from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But while the rocket was fueled on a launchpad in March, the launch attempt was called off because of technical problems. Astra has not made another launch attempt since then.
While many industry observers expect only a few companies to win enough business to survive, “I don’t see it as very packed,” said Hart, who expressed optimism that the emerging market will be larger than many expect.
Is this a new way to launch spacecraft?
No. This is essentially how the U.S. Air Force’s X-15 rocket plane was launched in the 1960s, taking pilots to the edge of space. More recently, an air-launched rocket called SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 as the first reusable private piloted spacecraft to reach an altitude of 62 miles — considered the edge of space — twice in two weeks.
Another of Branson’s companies, Virgin Galactic, is using the same concept on a larger rocket plane called SpaceShipTwo, to take paying passengers on up-and-down trips where they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and view Earth from the blackness of space.
Virgin Galactic, which has now become a publicly traded company, is separate from Virgin Orbit.
Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman, developed a similar air-launched rocket called Pegasus, which first flew in 1990. Most recently, it launched a NASA satellite, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, to orbit in October. But in recent years, Northrop Grumman has found few customers interested in Pegasus, which costs several times more than LauncherOne.
Another space startup, Stratolaunch, by Paul Allen, a billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, sought to launch larger rockets from an even bigger airplane — essentially two 747s that were conjoined at the wings. However, Stratolaunch’s business plan never coalesced, and after Allen’s death in 2018, the company largely shut down without ever attempting a launch. The company, sold last year, is now offering hypersonic flight tests rather than launches of payloads.