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Virgin Orbit launches satellites into space in ‘historic’ test flight

Richard Branson’s company successfully sends rocket into orbit using a modified Boeing 747

Virgin Orbit Twitter

Richard Branson says Virgin Orbit has “achieved something many thought impossible” after his satellite launch company reached space for the first time in a demonstration flight yesterday. 

In what was described as “a mission to open space for everyone”, Virgin Orbit used a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft to send its LauncherOne rocket into orbit to deploy ten payloads for Nasa’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

How does it work? 

Based in Long Beach in California, Virgin Orbit is part of “a wave of companies targeting the launch market for increasingly capable small satellites”, The Guardian says.

Branson’s firm, which is separate from Virgin Galactic, had tried and failed to launch a rocket in May last year.

That attempt was “thwarted by a breached propellant line feeding liquid oxygen to the booster’s first-stage Newton-3 engine”, the BBC reports.  But “no such problems occured this time”. 

Virgin Orbit’s launch system uses a technique called “air launch” in which the rocket is launched from under the wing of a customised Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft - dubbed “Cosmic Girl” - rather than from a traditional launch pad on the ground. 

The rocket then detaches from the aircraft and fires up its engines to soar up into space.

According to a statement from Virgin Orbit, “in addition to improving the payload capacity of the rocket, this technique allows the LauncherOne system to be the world’s most flexible and responsive launch service - flying on short notice and from a wide variety of locations to access any orbit”.

Sunday’s successful launch, from California’ Mojave Air and Space Port, was a “crucial milestone” for the company that “should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon”, says TechCrunch.

What next?

The launch is a “historical first”, says Virgin Orbit, which notes that “no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space before”.

The firm will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission, with launches already booked by clients including the US Space Force and the UK’s Royal Air Force. Commercial customers getting in on the action include US-based Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL and Denmark’s GomSpace.

“A new gateway to space has just sprung open,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said last night. “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.”

Branson added: “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.” 

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