Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket lofted seven small satellites for three different customers today (Jan. 13), marking the third straight successful mission for the California-based company.
Virgin Orbit is one of many rocket companies that have cropped up in the last few decades, aimed at specifically launching small- to medium-sized satellites into orbit. However, the company’s approach to getting these satellites into space is a bit unique compared to its competitors. Instead of launching vertically from the ground, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is designed to take off from underneath the wing of a carrier aircraft, a refurbished Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl.
Virgin Orbit, founded by Richard Branson, is aiming to carry out five more missions this year, including two in the summer from Cornwall, UK, which will be the company’s first international foray.
Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, lifted off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California today at 4:39 p.m. EST (2139 GMT; 1:39 p.m. local California time) with LauncherOne beneath its wing. Virgin Orbit says that with this latest launch, the total of satellites deployed by the LauncherOne has reached 26.
Virgin Orbit plane flew southwest for about 70 minutes until it reached its designated drop zone, a patch of the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of California’s Channel Islands. Cosmic Girl released LauncherOne at 5:52 p.m. EST (2252 GMT), at an altitude of roughly 35,000 feet (10,700 meters), and the two-stage rocket powered its way to orbit.
“Virgin Orbit customers are starting to hear back from their satellites that are checking in from orbit — and for us, that’s what success looks like. It’s a thrill for our team that this mission included our first repeat customers as well as our first ‘last minute ticket’ customers and reached an orbit that no one had ever reached from the West Coast before,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a press release.
The majority of the virgin orbit launched satellites carry scientific instruments and include experiments in communications, navigation, propulsion and space debris detection. Additionally, one satellite will serve the agricultural sector.
The payload consists of satellites for the US Defence Department and Colorado-based Spire Global Incorporated as well as two nanosatellites for SatRevolution, a manufacturer based in Wroclaw, Poland. They will orbit at an altitude of 500km.
Virgin Orbit said on its webcast that the rocket performed normally during its ascent. The shares rose 3.7% to $9.75 in late trading after the rocket’s launch.
Virgin Orbit plans to carve out a sizable share of the small-satellite market with Cosmic Girl and the 70-foot-long (21 m) LauncherOne, which is capable of delivering 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) to orbit on each mission.
Today’s mission, which Virgin Orbit named “Above the Clouds” after a 1998 song by Gang Starr, also carried seven satellites. Four are sponsored by the STP, which does a lot of research and development for the Space Force.
Virgin Orbit’s launch occurred on the same day as SpaceX’s second launch of the year, which also sent a crop of small satellites into orbit on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX’s launch, called Transporter-3, hoisted a whopping 105 small satellites into orbit, deploying them one by one into space.
Since SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has a bigger capacity than a smaller rocket like LauncherOne, it can carry a bunch of small satellites at once into space, a bit like a cosmic carpool. SpaceX aims to launch at least three dedicated rocket rideshares a year through its Smallsat Rideshare Program.
Of course, Virgin Orbit will need to up its launch cadence in order to offer a rapid path to space for customers. So far, the company is averaging about six months between launches. But Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart says the company is targeting six launches this year, which would double the launch cadence.