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Virgin Orbit launch in the Mojave

Virgin Orbit reaches space; Nasa’s deep space rocket stumbles at first hurdle

Image credit: REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space this weekend during its second attempt, carrying a cluster of small satellites into orbit.

Virgin Orbit plans to launch rockets carrying payloads from aircraft at high altitude. According to the company, this allows satellites to be placed more precisely and efficiently compared with traditional vertical rocket launches from a ground pad.

Virgin Orbit reached this milestone eight months after the failure of its initial demonstration flight using its air-launched rocket system. In May 2020, the company was forced to terminate its demonstration early due to an anomaly in the first stage of flight, resulting in the loss of the rocket and a test satellite on board.

A subsequent investigation found that there had been a breach in a high-pressure line carrying cryogenic fluid to the first-stage combustion chamber.

This weekend, a modified Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft ('Cosmic Girl') took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in the desert north of Los Angeles and flew towards the Pacific Ocean. Just off the coast of Southern California, the two-stage LauncherOne rocket was released from beneath the carrier’s wing. The rocket ignited its engine moments later and continued into space.

The launch was not livestreamed, as many major launch events are. However, Virgin Orbit shared its developments on Twitter: “According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!”

Virgin Orbit tweeted: “In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo,” subsequently adding, “Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.”

LauncherOne’s upper stage was scheduled to coast for a certain time, then relight to circularise the orbit before deploying its cluster of satellites. The rocket was carrying 10 CubeSats – miniaturised satellites measuring 10cm x 10cm x 10cm – built as part of a Nasa educational programme with US universities.

The CubeSats were released approximately two hours after the Boeing 747-400 took off from Mojave.

Virgin Orbit is one of a growing number of companies aiming to offer affordable and accessible satellite launches, with a focus on small CubeSat-like satellites. Virgin Orbit hopes to offer a more flexible launch service than competitors such as Rocket Lab, SpaceX, and Firefly Aerospace, by making use of airports all around the world as take-off sites.

It aims to begin commercial operations later this year in New Mexico. It has won a $35m US Space Force contract for three missions, beginning in October this year.

The day before, Nasa experienced a disappointment during a trial of its deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing. In a simulation of a real launch, the Space Launch System ignited all four engines for just over a minute; it would require four minutes of ignition to stay on track for its first launch, which is scheduled for November as part of Nasa’s Artemis program. It is uncertain whether Nasa will be required to repeat the test, potentially pushing the launch back to 2022.

Despite the test ending prematurely, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine commented at a press conference that: “Today was a good day […] we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to inform the planned launch.

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