, the California-based satellite launch company, part of the Virgin Group, made a major leap forward yesterday when its LauncherOne rocket reached space during the company’s second launch demonstration, successfully deploying 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).
The company’s novel launch system uses a technique called air launch, in which a rocket is launched from under the wing of an airliner, rather than from a traditional launch pad on the ground.
In addition to improving the payload capacity of the rocket, this technique allows the LauncherOne system to be the world’s most flexible and responsive launch service — flying on short notice and from a wide variety of locations to access any orbit.
Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, ‘Cosmic Girl’, a customised 747-400, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port yesterday and flew out to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean. 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 the team’s precise target orbit, marking a major step forward for Virgin Orbit in its quest to bust down the barriers preventing affordable and responsive access to space.
The payloads onboard LauncherOne were selected by NASA LSP as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). Nearly all of 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.
This flight also marks a historical first — no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fuelled rocket had successfully reached space before.
Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, said: “A new gateway to space has just sprung open. That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit is a testament to the Virgin Orbit team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity.
“Even in the face of a global pandemic, we have 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 could not be happier.”
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, said: “Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. It was so inspiring to see 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 cannot wait to see the incredible missions Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good.”
With this successful demonstration completed, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission. Virgin Orbit has subsequent launches booked by customers ranging from the USA, Space Force and the UK’s Royal Air Force to commercial customers like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.