Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.
Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021
Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.
Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.
Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.
This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.
Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.
It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.
Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.
In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.
Virgin Orbit is wasting no time in 2021 getting back to active flight testing: The company has a window for its next orbital demonstration launch attempt that opens on Sunday, January 10, and that continues throughout the rest of the month. This follows an attempt last year made in May, which ended before the LauncherOne rocket reached orbit — shortly after it detached from the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, in fact.
While that mission didn’t go exactly as Virgin Orbit had hoped, it was a significant milestone for the small satellite launch company, and helped gather a significant amount of data about how the vehicle performs in flight. LauncherOne was able to briefly light its rocket booster before safety systems on board automatically shut it down. The company had been looking to fly this second test before the end of last year, but issues including COVID-19 meant that they only got as far as the wet dress rehearsal (essentially a run-through of everything leading up to the flight with the vehicles fully fueled).
This next mission will once again attempt an orbital launch, and this time, the stakes are somewhat higher because actual customer payloads from NASA are on board. They include a number of small satellite science experiments and demonstrations, and while they’re specifically selected for the mission profile (meaning it’s not a tremendous loss if the launch fails), it still would make everyone happiest to actually get them to their target destination.
The nature of the launch window means that Virgin Orbit will likely wait for conditions to be as good as possible before taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, so take that January 10 date as the earliest possible launch time, but not necessarily the most likely. If successful, Virgin Orbit will join a select group of private small launch vehicles that have made it to orbit, so the industry will definitely be watching the next time Cosmic Girl takes off with LauncherOne attached.
Virgin Orbit has announced the target timing for its next orbital flight attempt, which follows a demonstration launch earlier this year that went mostly well – right up until its rocket separated from the carrier launch craft and fired up its own engines for the crucial rest of the trip to space. The company says that it’s undertaken a number of upgrades based on that first try, however, including updates to the engine systems, carrier aircraft and data systems to hopefully have a better demo flight the second time around.
The new launch window is December 19, between the hours of 10 AM to 2 PM PST. There’s also a backup window set for December 20 ranging across similar hours, the company says, and others in the following weeks, in case it needs to be rescheduled for nay reason. This demonstration will involve a full launch cycle of the entire Virgin Orbit launch system, including its Cosmic Girl launch aircraft (a modiified 747 passenger airliner) and LauncherOne, the rocket that detaches from Cosmic Girl at cruising altitude before firing up its own engines to make the rest of the trip to space with small satellite payloads on board.
Virgin Orbit’s system is unique because it takes off and lands from a traditional airport, eliminating the need for specialized launch sites and opening up the potential of relatively low-lift global launch flexibility. It also have the potential to offer cost and scheduling advantages to small satellite companies looking to launch just one or a few spacecraft, without having to wait for timing on a rideshare mission on a larger rocket like one from SpaceX, or pay a premium for something like Rocket Lab’s offering.
Last time around in May, Virgin Orbit’s flight went perfectly from takeoff through the separation of LauncherOne from the carrier aircraft. The rocket even fired up its engines on time as planned, but the engines cut off essentially right away due to a built-in safety system that also worked as planned when it detected some unusual readings.
With this second attempt, Virgin Orbit wants to show that it’s system works from that point on, as well, with a full first-stage powered flight, and operation of the upper stage. Stakes are a bit higher this time around, as on board will be actual customer satellites, even though this is technically still a demonstration mission the primary purpose of which is to collect data.
The 10 payloads on board are from NASA, and represent a number of different scientific and educational programs created entirely by U.S.-based universities and academic institutions.