Virgin Orbit gets into orbit, building on Paul Allen’s legacy

LauncherOne ignites engine
LauncherOne lights up its rocket engine after its release from a carrier airplane. (Virgin Orbit Photo)

Eight months after an unsuccessful first attempt, Virgin Orbit finally lived up to its name today and used an innovative air-launch system to put 10 satellites in orbit.

With backing from British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system capitalizes on a concept that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded 17 years ago.

The air-launch concept won SpaceShipOne a $10 million prize back in 2004. Today, it plays an essential role not only for LauncherOne, but also for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system and the Stratolaunch venture that Allen founded in 2011.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, serves as a flying launch pad for the two-stage LauncherOne rocket.

During last May’s first full-fledged flight test, the rocket’s first-stage NewtonThree engine lit up for only a few seconds before a breach in the propellant system forced a shutdown. No such glitch arose today. Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, flew out over the Pacific, and released the rocket for engine ignition at about 11:39 a.m. PT.

LauncherOne fired its first-stage engine for the full duration, went through stage separation, lit up the second stage’s NewtonFour rocket engine — and achieved orbit.. “Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers,” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “Even the folks on comms are trying really hard not to sound too excited.”

While Cosmic Girl and its crew returned to base, LauncherOne’s second stage settled into a stable orbit for the deployment of 10 nanosatellites (including a pair of satellites for a single mission) for NASA’s ELaNa academic launch program.

The satellites are designed for a wide variety of research projects, ranging from monitoring weather in Earth’s polar regions to inspecting spacecraft with a spherical camera array. Their launch follows through on a $4.7 million NASA contract awarded back in 2015.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, hailed Virgin Orbit’s orbital milestone while the mission proceeded. “I know there are more steps and burns today,” he tweeted. “But what an amazing achievement already today.”

More than two and a half hours after launch, Virgin Orbit passed along the good news about satellite deployment in a tweet.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted his congratulations for what he called “a great achievement.” And Branson said LauncherOne’s success will unleash “a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”

Virgin Orbit’s system brings several advantages for satellite launches. The Cosmic Girl jet can use any major airport as its base of operations, and dodge threatening weather as it heads out to a launch. Theoretically, payloads can be sent to virtually any orbital inclination. Such versatility is particularly appealing for small-scale, rapid-response national security missions.

The main limitation has to do with mass: The 30-ton LauncherOne rocket can put up to a half-ton (1,100 pounds, or 500 kilograms) of payload into low Earth orbit, depending on the orbital parameters. In comparison, Stratolaunch’s mammoth plane is designed to carry orbital launch vehicles and payloads with a combined weight of more than 250 tons.

The Allen family’s Vulcan holding company transferred ownership of Stratolaunch to a venture capital group in 2019. Stratolaunch is currently conducting a series of ground tests in preparation for the next flight test of its twin-fuselage carrier airplane, nicknamed Roc, which ranks as the largest plane in the world.

Update for 7:20 p.m. PT Jan. 17: It should be noted that the commercial air-launch system wasn’t invented by Paul Allen, nor was it invented by SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan. Orbital Sciences Corp. started launching Pegasus rockets from airplanes in flight in 1990. The most recent Pegasus XL launch occurred in 2019. Thanks to acquisitions, Northrop Grumman is now in charge of the Pegasus program.

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