Virgin Orbit flew a rocket to orbit Sunday in a test flight that marks the introduction of a new method for low-cost satellite launches and the likely shake-up of the aerospace industry.
The flight was the company’s first successful trip to space, launching a small rocket from the wing of a 747 airplane flying over the Pacific Ocean. And it marked a triumph for Richard Branson, the British billionaire who now has two companies that have reached space successfully with different vehicles.
In a series of tweets, the company chronicled the flight of its LauncherOne rocket, celebrating each milestone, from engine ignition to second stage separation. “According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company tweeted about 2:50 p.m. Eastern time. “Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.”
The company hopes to be a disruptive force in the launch market by offering a small, 70-foot long, two-stage rocket suited to take advantage of a revolution in satellite technology that is shrinking their size and lowering their costs. LauncherOne is a relatively small, 70-foot-long, two-stage vehicle that would be able to hoist payloads of up to a few hundred pounds – satellites that would range “from the size of a very big refrigerator to the size of a toaster oven,” Will Pommerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president of special projects, said in a call with reporters before the test flight.
Instead of launching vertically from a pad on the ground, the company tethers LauncherOne under the wing of a modified 747 airplane, which carries the rocket to an altitude of about 35,000 feet. The rocket is then released, fires its engine and shoots off to space.
The “air launch” technique means the rocket is already above much of the atmosphere and traveling just under Mach 1, or the speed of sound, when it fires its engines. And instead of requiring a lot of ground infrastructure, the company can be flexible, essentially taking off from any runway that can accommodate a 747.
The company attempted its first launch on Memorial Day last year. The rocket dropped, but its engine cut off shortly after ignition. After an investigation, the company said there was a “breach in the high-pressure line” that carried liquid oxygen to the first stage combustion chamber. Without the oxidizer, “that engine soon stopped providing thrust, ending our powered flight and ultimately the test itself.”
The company said it had fixed the problem and has done “an enormous amount of testing since then,” Dan Hart, Virgin orbit’s president and CEO, said before Sunday’s launch.
While a test flight, Sunday’s mission was carrying 10 small satellites in cooperation with a NASA program that allows universities and others to launch small satellites for Earth observation, weather prediction and other science and research projects. The company said it was still awaiting confirmation that the satellites had deployed successfully.
Virgin Orbit is entering a crowded market of companies that want to capitalize on launching small satellites. Rocket Lab, a company that launches from New Zealand, has sent several payloads to orbit for commercial and government customers. It plans to begin launches soon from Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The companies are following in the footsteps of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which upended the launch market by offering discount launch prices with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
Virgin Orbit said it believes the market for small satellites is going to continue to grow. It hopes to expand its business to include commercial companies as well as satellites for the Space Force and U.S. intelligence agencies that need to be able to respond rapidly to potential threats.
Over the past couple of years, Hart said, the Pentagon has been “taking note of the utility of small satellites in this environment of space becoming a contested, I’ll say a dangerous, environment to operate in.”
After the launch, Gen. Jay Raymond, the Space Force’s chief of space operations, wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations to the Virgin Orbit Team!”
Virgin Orbit is the sister company of another of Branson’s endeavors, Virgin Galactic, a venture that vows to become the “world’s first commercial spaceline” by flying tourists to the edge of space and back. It has flown people on suborbital trips to the edge of space twice, and is gearing up to fly paying passengers as soon as this year.
Virgin Galactic suffered a setback during a launch attempt last year – a flight was aborted after the company said an “onboard computer that monitors the propulsion system lost connection,” halting the ignition of the rocket’s motor.
Virgin Galactic has not said when it intends to fly again. Branson has said he’s optimistic that he will be able to be on a flight later this year, fulfilling his dream of going to space.