Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit has proved that it has the right stuff.
Its brightly coloured Boeing 747, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, took off from an airstrip at the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California around 10:30 am PT with a 70-foot rocket, called LauncherOne, nestled beneath the plane’s left wing.
The aircraft flew out over the Pacific Ocean before the rocket was released, freeing LauncherOne and allowing it to power up its rocket motor and propel itself to more than 17,000 mph, fast enough to begin orbiting the Earth.
Not only did it mark the first successful launch for the California-based rocket startup Virgin Orbit, it also launched nine small satellites in a very efficient manner, CNN Business reported.
“In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo,” the company posted on its Twitter account.
The rocket flew a group of tiny satellites on behalf of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa, program, which allows high school and college students to design and assemble small satellites that NASA then pays to launch into space, CNN reported.
The nine small satellites that Virgin Orbit flew on Sunday included temperature-monitoring satellite from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a satellite that will study how tiny particles collide in space from the University of Central Florida, and an experimental radiation-detection satellite from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
About four hours after takeoff on Saturday, Virgin Orbit confirmed in a tweet that all the satellites were “successfully deployed into our target orbit.”
The successful mission makes Virgin Orbit only the third so-called “New Space” company — startups hoping to overhaul the traditional industry with innovative technologies — to reach orbit, after SpaceX and Rocket Lab, CNN reported.
The success also paves the way for Virgin Orbit to begin launching satellites for a host of customers that it already has lined up, including NASA, the military and private-sector companies that use satellites for commercial purposes.
“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,” said Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the company.
“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible.”
Virgin Orbit spun off from Virgin Galactic, a company focused on suborbital human spaceflight, in 2017, CNN reported.
Its first attempt to put a rocket in orbit came last May, when LauncherOne malfunctioned shortly after release and the flight was aborted.
That failure wasn’t unexpected.
“Launching from the Earth to space is mind-bogglingly difficult,” the company said after the 2020 launch attempt.
A rocket dropped from an aircraft cannot ignite its engines immediately due to the proximity of the plane and its pilots, ArsTechnica.com reported.
In the case of LauncherOne, the rocket’s NewtonThree engine is ignited 3.25 seconds after being dropped. Main engine start comes at 5.2 seconds. During this time, the rocket is falling and losing the velocity it gained from the aircraft at about 30,000 feet.
Due to this drag, a negative acceleration acts on the booster, causing all sorts of problems for both the rocket’s structure and its propulsion system, ArsTechnica.com reported.
The ignition process itself is also a challenge in the air.
On the ground, a rocket typically ignites its engines, and the onboard computer performs a final, quick check to make sure everything is healthy, before the rocket is released.
This is why liftoff typically follows ignition by a few seconds. There is no margin for error with Launcher One, because if ignition does not happen, the rocket simply falls into the ocean, ArsTechnica.com reported.
The company and its engineers were able to overcome all of these issues and more with the design of their rocket. But it took time and a lot of money.
Branson has acknowledged that he and other investors have put about US$1 billion into Virgin Orbit, which is a lot of money to invest in a small satellite launcher.