The stage was set for Virgin Orbit, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, to show what it could do in its maiden test launch on the morning of May 25th.
The mission involved the launching of a rocket into orbit from the wing of a modified Boeing 747-400 — a technology that, if it worked, would make it much easier and less costly to put payloads into low-earth orbit.
It successfully completed all pre-launch procedures, as well as the carry flight to the drop site just west of the Channel Islands, over the Pacific Ocean, Flight Global reported.
Virgin says that after a successful clean release from the 747 at 35,000 ft, the 21m (68ft)-long LauncherOne rocket “successfully lighted its booster engine on cue” — its first successful in-air ignition attempt.
However, minutes later, Virgin Orbit says “an anomaly … occurred early in the first-stage flight, and the mission (was) safely terminated.”
Virgin Orbit did not provide further details on what happened to the LauncherOne rocket, except to say that it “accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked.”
The 747 and its crew landed safely back at Mojave Air and Space Port, the flight’s point of origin, the report said.
Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart adds: “Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”
The company’s next rocket is in its “final stages of integration” at its Long Beach, California facility. Subsequent rockets are also in the manufacturing process, the report said.
The purpose of the flight was to gather data on every step of the launch process rather than to have a useful satellite in orbit; the demonstration payload was described as an inert mass and the intended orbit was very low to avoid contributing to the problem of space junk, CTV News reported.
The LauncherOne rocket — designed to put payloads of up to around 400kg (880 lb) in to low-Earth orbit — is carried from take-off under the 747’s left wing and released from a steep climb, Flight Global reported.
The 747’s original-equipment fifth-engine carry point has been modified to handle the 21m-long rocket, the report said.
Sister company Virgin Atlantic provided the donor aircraft for the project; originally registered as G-VWOW, it entered service in 2001 and has since been renamed as Cosmic Girl.
While other companies are developing rockets for the small satellite market and builders of big rockets like SpaceX can carry them into orbit in a ride-share arrangement with large satellites, Virgin Orbit’s air launch system based on the aviation industry’s workhorse 747 is intended to put a satellite up when and where a customer needs it, Hart said.
“We can fly to space from any place that can host a 747, which is almost any place,” he said.
Hart did not provide a specific dollar value for the missions it has on the books but characterized it as “hundreds of millions.”