Virgin Orbit Successfully Launches a Batch of Satellites From an Airplane

On Sunday, January 17th, Virgin Orbit conducted the second launch test of its LauncherOne rocket, which the company will use to deploy small satellites to orbit in the coming years. The mission (Launch Demo 2) went smoothly and validated the company’s delivery system, which consists of the rocket air launching from a repurposed 747-400 (named Cosmic Girl).

It also involved the successful deployment of 10 CubeSats which were selected by NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). The event began when Cosmic Girl took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 10:50 A.M. PST (01:50 P.M. EST) and flew to a location about 80 km (50 mi) south of the Channel Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The launch took place at 11:39 A.M. PST (02:39 P.M. EST) when Cosmic Girl was at an altitude of 10,700 m (35,100 ft). A short time later, the upper stage separated and fired its NewtonFour engine to reach its target orbit and deploy the payload. Nearly all of the 10 CubeSats were designed and built by universities across the US and were deployed as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites mission (ELaNa 20).

By 02:28 PM PST (05:28 EST), Virgin Orbit announced its success via it’s Twitter Feed, saying: “Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit! We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space, carrying 9 CubeSat missions into Low Earth Orbit for our friends @NASA. #LaunchDemo2.”

Virgin Orbit issued a press statement shortly thereafter, with CEO Dan Hart commending all those who made it happen:

“A new gateway to space has just sprung open! 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.”

The flight was also a historic first since no other orbital-class air-launched system has successfully made it to space using liquid propellant. This is what sets the Virgin Orbit system apart from previous air-launch rockets, which relied on solid chemical propellant. In contrast, the engines on the LauncherOne’s first stage and upper stage (NewtonThree and NewtonFour) rely on a combination of RP-1 (similar to kerosene) liquid oxygen (LOX).

This test was all the more gratifying given that the maiden flight of LauncherOne (which took place on May 25th, 2020) did not go so well. A few seconds after the rocket ignited, the first stage engine suffered a premature shutdown that prevented the rocket from reaching orbit. The failure was attributed to a high-pressure liquid oxygen fuel line breaking in the NewtonThree engine after ignition.

The issue was addressed by strengthening the broken components before the second attempt was made. Now that they have validated the launch system, Virgin Orbit is a step closer to realizing their new air-launch service. The ability to deploy small satellites to orbit this way offers a degree of flexibility and responsiveness from a wide variety of locations, something that conventional rockets do not enjoy.

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson was also quoted in the company statement, saying:

“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. 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. I can’t wait to see the incredible missions Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good.”

Now that they have conducted a successful demonstration, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial launch services. Right now, the company has launches planned for customers ranging from the U.S. Space Force (USSF) and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force (RAF) to commercial contractors like Swarm Technologies,

With this successful demonstration in the books, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission. Virgin Orbit has subsequent launches booked by customers ranging from the U.S. Space Force and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force to commercial satellite companies like California-based Swarm Technologies, Italy’s Space, Science, Industrial & IoT Solutions (SITAEL), and Denmark’s GomSpace.

The rockets that will make these flights are already undergoing integration at the company’s Long Beach manufacturing facility. Virgin Orbit also plans to scale-up production so it can build 24 new rockets a year using a cutting-edge hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing process. This was made possible thanks to their recent partnership with German manufacturing giant DMG Mori.

As noted, the ten CubeSats were selected by NASA through their CSLI program, an initiative NASA created to attract and retain high-school and university students (as well as non-profit organizations) in the STEM disciplines. Participating institutions included Brigham Young University (PICS), the University of Michigan (MiTEE), and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (CAPE-3).

Further Reading: Virgin Orbit