Virgin Orbit successfully achieved orbit with their 'LauncherOne' air dropped rocket for the first time on Sunday, January 17th at about 11:49 am PST. Carrying the 'ELaNa-20' mission for NASA, this comes as a welcome relief after last year's initial orbital test ended prematurely when a leak in a propellant line triggered an abort shortly after ignition.
LauncherOne dropping from its carrier plane (Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)
Nothing says 'we can make it to orbit' like making it to orbit, and now Virgin can say they have. Their unique vehicle begins its journey not on a launch pad, but on a tarmac, locked to the wing of a 747-400 jet airplane named 'Cosmic Girl'. Once they reach an altitude of about 35,000 ft the rocket is released and drops away before igniting its RP-1/LOX engine. It is capable of delivering over 1,000 lbs into a sun-synchronous orbit from virtually any airport that will allow it, and can carry several satellites at once. At a cost of roughly $12 million per launch, it is considerably cheaper than conventional medium-lift methods.
Air dropped rockets are not a new idea, the solid motor Pegasus rocket developed by Orbital Sciences has enjoyed 39 successful launches since 1990. Virgin Orbit hopes to capture a segment of the SmallSat market that is impractical for larger vertical lift vehicles without a pre-existing rideshare, but require a heavier capacity than is currently being met by competitors like Rocket Lab with their 'Electron' vehicle. The LauncherOne also has the added benefit of being able to deploy to any orbital inclination, with plans being made to fly future missions from Kennedy Space Center, Newquay Airport in England, and potentially other locations around the globe.
First Stage Ignition (Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)
This technology demonstration mission took off from Mojave Air and Spaceport, and launched over the Pacific Ocean west of San Nicolas Island in California. It was part of NASA's 'Venture Class Launch Services' program designed to support the development of new commercial space technologies by awarding funding and mission contracts. Dubbed the ELaNa-20 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) mission, Virgin delivered 10 research satellites built by university programs. For more information on the payload, click here.
Founded in 1970 by Richard Branson and Nik Powell, 'Virgin Group' has explored a multitude of business ventures all over the world, ranging from cell phone service to record labels, and of course the passenger airline 'Virgin Atlantic'. In 2005 'Virgin Galactic' was formed to pursue commercial spaceflight, and at the time expected to achieve their maiden voyage by 2009. It wasn't until December 2018 that this dream was realized with the suborbital flight of VSS Unity.
They plan to use their 'SpaceShip2' air-dropped, liquid fueled rocket plane to take up to 6 passengers on a suborbital cruise with a maximum altitude of 68 miles. Although typical flights will fall just short of the 'Karman line' boundary of space, they will cross the U.S. recognized boundary. Future astronauts will fly more than three times the speed of sound and experience several minutes of unencumbered weightlessness before the vehicle glides back to Earth to land on a normal runway. The first commercial passengers are expected to take to the skies later in 2021.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (Virgin Galactic)
In 2017 Virgin formed 'Virgin Orbit' to specifically develop orbital satellite capabilities while Galactic continues to focus on passenger flight. The design for LauncherOne has been in development since 2007, and began unfueled flight tests in late 2018, but it was not until May 25th, 2020 that LauncherOne made its first orbital attempt. That flight was aborted just seconds after ignition and did not reach orbit. Virgin was able to trace the failure to a fuel line that carried liquid oxygen to the engine. However, this bittersweet mission successfully proved their ignition and navigation systems, and gave Virgin with a wealth of data.
Less than a year later, and confident that they had fixed the root problem of the failure, they have succeeded in delivering ELaNa-20 to orbit. This marks Virgin's first orbital flight, but it is very likely we will see LauncherOne again later this year, and much more in the near future. The field of SmallSat launchers is rapidly growing, with orbital launches anticipated by several new companies in 2021 including Firefly Aerospace and ABL Space Systems among others, as well as Astra Space who successfully flew their new vehicle in December 2020 but failed to reach orbit. Virgin Galactic has now proven their orbital capabilities, and their uniquely flexible launch strategy sets them apart from field.
It has been a long road in pursuit of Richard Branson's dream of his own space program, but the pieces are finally beginning to align. As the commercial space sector continues to grow, Virgin Galactic will be at the forefront, connecting businesses and individuals towards the new adventure of affordable spaceflight. Orbit is now in orbit.
(Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)
To learn more about Virgin Orbit, visit their website here