Virgin’s satellite launcher reaches orbit for first time

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket fires its NewtonThree main engine moments after release from the Boeing 747 carrier jet, named “Cosmic Girl.” Credit: Virgin Orbit

An air-launched rocket built by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached orbit Sunday for the first time, delivering 10 experimental CubeSats for NASA and positioning the company for the start of commercial operations.

The success adds another company to the growing club of private space companies capable of launching satellites. Virgin Orbit is second in a new wave of commercial small launch companies — after Rocket Lab — to accomplish the task of putting payloads in orbit.

Virgin Orbit aims to offer small satellite operators — ranging from NASA and research institutions, to the U.S. and foreign militaries, to commercial startups — dedicated launch opportunities from sites around the world.

“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible,” Branson said in a statement. “It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, ‘Cosmic Girl,’ send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit. 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.”

“A new gateway to space has just sprung open! 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, and we couldn’t be happier,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO.

Virgin Orbit said the successful test launch will allow the company to commence commercial operations.

“With this successful demonstration in the books, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission,” the company said in a statement. “Virgin Orbit has subsequent launches booked by customers ranging from the U.S. Space Force and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force to commercial customers like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.”

The use of an air-launched rocket deployed from a Boeing 747 carrier jet comes with some limitations and technical challenges, but Virgin Orbit says it gives the company flexibility in where it launches and the orbits it can reach.

In addition to the company’s primary launch base at Mojave, California, Virgin Orbit plans launches from Guam, and is studying basing missions in the United Kingdom and other sites around the world.

The LauncherOne rocket fires into space Sunday. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s 747 carrier aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 10:38 a.m. PST (1:38 p.m. EST; 1838 GMT) with the nearly 29-ton LauncherOne rocket mounted under its left wing.

After heading west, then turning south to cross California’s Central Coast, the aircraft’s two pilots and two launch engineers readied the rocket for release.

Piloted by Kelly Latimer, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot, the 747 jumbo jet entered a steep climb of more than 25 degrees just before the crew sent the command to drop the 70-foot-long (21-meter) rocket around 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over the Pacific Ocean off the coast Southern California at 11:39 a.m. PST (2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT) Sunday.

Five seconds later, pumps inside the rocket’s NewtonThree main engine spun up to ignite LauncherOne’s first stage and accelerate toward the southeast over the Pacific. Burning kerosene in combination with liquid oxygen, the main engine generated 73,500 pounds of thrust during a three-minute burn to booster the rocket out of the atmosphere.

Virgin Orbit tweeted real-time updates on the progress of the mission, but the company did not host a public stream live video of the mission.

The rocket’s NewtonFour second stage engine ignited moments after the LauncherOne booster jettisoned, followed by separation of the payload fairing once the vehicle reached space. After a six-minute upper stage firing, the rocket reached a preliminary orbit, a first for Branson’s Virgin Group, which owns Virgin Orbit and sister-company Virgin Galactic, which focuses on the suborbital space tourism market.

“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit! Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers,” Virgin Orbit tweeted.

But the rocket was not done.

After crossing over Antarctica and coasting halfway around the world, the rocket reignited its second stage engine for a few seconds, targeting a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit. The rocket was programmed to deploy its 10 nanosatellite payloads about one minute later.

It took nearly two hours for Virgin Orbit to confirm the results of the final burn and CubeSat separations.

“Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit!” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space, carrying nine CubeSat missions into low Earth orbit for our friends (at) NASA.”

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, mounted under the wing of a Boeing 747 carrier jet, takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port on Sunday. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne became the second air-launched rocket to put satellites into orbit, following the solid-fueled Pegasus launch vehicle developed by Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman. The LauncherOne rocket is the first liquid-fueled satellite booster to fly into orbit off an airborne platform.

Sunday’s mission, called “Launch Demo 2” by Virgin Orbit, followed nearly eight months after the first LauncherOne rocket failed seconds after release from the 747 carrier aircraft. Virgin Orbit said a break in a liquid oxygen feed line to the LauncherOne’s first stage engine caused the failure a few seconds after the engine ignited.

Engineers beefed up the feed line for the second LauncherOne rocket, and the propulsion system apparently functioned normally Sunday.

The LauncherOne vehicle can deliver up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of payload to a low-altitude equatorial orbit, or up to 661 pounds (300 kilograms) to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit, according to Virgin Orbit.

The payloads aboard the launch Sunday had a combined mass of about 253 pounds, or 115 kilograms, including adapters and harnesses, according to Kendall Russell, a Virgin Orbit spokesperson.

As Virgin Orbit’s first paying customer, NASA agreed to accept additional risk on the second LauncherOne flight.

Although there were 10 small satellites on-board, the prime objective of Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission was to “characterize the performance of the system and to get the data as we go through the sequence of events,” Hart said before the launch.

“We have what we consider NASA’s more risk-tolerant payloads, but from our point of view, they’re real payloads, and we want to get them to the right place,” Hart said last week. “It’s a new system, and the objective of a demo flight is to get the data on the system. So getting the data is internally our primary objectives, and our success criteria.”

NASA booked the mission in 2015 with Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit’s previous parent company, through the Venture Class Launch Services program. NASA established the VCLS program to provide rides to orbit for small research nanosatellites, and help give business to startup companies developing smallsat launchers.

The VCLS missions are “intended to be demonstration flights,” according to Scott Higginbotham, a mission manager in the Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

NASA solicits proposals from U.S. research and educational institutions for CubeSat experiments through the CubeSat Launch Initiative. The agency pays for the launch of the CubeSats it selects, while the spacecraft themselves are typically funded through other sources.

Payload technicians prepare one of the 10 CubeSats on the Launch Demo 2 mission for loading into its deployment mechanism. Credit: Virgin Orbit

“Our first customer on this flight, NASA, has done some incredible things with small satellites, and we really look forward to pushing forward with NASA in exploring our solar system, our universe, and our Earth with small satellites,” Hart said in a pre-launch press conference. “NASA is moving toward using small satellites as a more cost-effective way of doing Earth science.”

NASA called the Virgin Orbit mission ELaNa-20, or the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-20.

The 10 CubeSats aboard Virgin Orbit’s Launch Demo 2 mission were built by university students and NASA researchers. Here’s an overview of the CubeSat payloads provided by NASA and Virgin Orbit:

  • CACTUS-1 – Capital Technology University, Laurel, Maryland: A 3U CubeSat carrying out two technology demonstrations. The primary payload, TrapSat, is tackling the issue of space debris by using aerogel to capture and profile orbiting microdebris. The mission also includes the first secondary stand-alone payload for a CubeSat, the Hermes module, which demonstrates commanding via Internet as an cost-saving communications and command subsystem for gathering scientific data.
  • CAPE-3 – Unversity of Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana: This educational mission will fly the Smartphone CubeSat Classroom, which allows anyone with a smartphone to set up a ground station with a kit. Interactive educational activities will give students the ability to interact with the CubeSat via an app on their smartphone and use their smartphone to design their own CubeSat experiments.
  • EXOCUBE-2 – California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California: This 3U CubeSat is equipped with a space weather platform that will measure a number of atomic and ionic substances in the exosphere. Knowledge of the composition and the current state of activity in the exosphere can be useful in the prediction of space weather phenomena in order to forecast potential effects on satellite communications and spacecraft performance.
  • MiTEE – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan: MiTEE is a series of two CubeSat missions developing the capability to deploy a pico/femto (i.e. very small) satellite-tether system. The missions will allow students to work on a real-world, research-driven mission to assess the key dynamics and electrodynamic fundamentals of a very short tether system for flying pairs of smallsats.
  • PICS – Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: A pair of two satellites, PICS is a technology demonstration of a spacecraft that can perform inspection, maintenance and assembly on another spacecraft. The two flight systems deployed simultaneously will enable the collection of image data from each other as well as the parent spacecraft.
  • PolarCube – University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado: PolarCube is a small radiometer that will collect Earth surface and atmospheric temperature data. Its purpose is to collect brightness temperature spectra at a low cost, useful for applications like storm cell observations and the study of sea ice fractions near the poles.
  • Q-PACE – University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida: Q-PACE will facilitate long-duration microgravity experiments to study collisions in the early protoplanetary disk. The CubeSat will observe low-velocity collisions between cm-scale and smaller particles, addressing the decades-old question of how bodies grow past the meter-size barrier into planetesimals that can become planets through gravitational accretion.
  • RadFXSat-2 – Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee: RadFxSat-2 has two mission objectives: to study the effects of space radiation on a specific kind of Static Random Access Memory (SRAM) for the purpose of validating single-event error rate predictions, and to test a design for two-way amateur radio communications.
  • TechEdSat-7 – NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett, California: The overall goal of TechEdSat is to evaluate, demonstrate, and validate two new technologies for future experiments aboard smallsats. After 60 days in orbit, the satellite will be commanded to quickly re-enter the atmosphere utilizing a new device called an Exo-Brake.

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