Virgin Orbit became the latest private company to successfully launch a rocket into orbit over the weekend, and this wasn’t any ordinary lift-off.
Rather than launching from the ground, Sunday’s test saw the company’s LauncherOne rocket fire up from mid-air, after being released at 30,000ft from the wing of a Boeing 747.
The ‘Cosmic Girl’ passenger jet took off from the Mojave Air and Space port in Southern California, and flew LauncherOne up to cruising altitude before releasing its payload over the Pacific. Virgin Orbit’s first successful air-launch test flight saw the rocket free-fall for a few seconds, before firing up its boosters and heading into space. Once in orbit, LauncherOne successfully deployed 10 small NASA satellites before falling back to Earth.
News of the launch was announced by the company on Twitter, with Virgin Orbit posting, ‘According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit! Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.’
LauncherOne’s test flight was not live-streamed to the public, but the company later posted a video of the moment the rocket was deployed, adding that ‘to say we’re thrilled would be a massive understatement’.
Virgin Orbit, which grew out of Virgin Galactic in 2017, has had a pretty bumpy ride over the years as it attempted to reach this milestone. An earlier launch attempt back in May ended in failure after the rocket lost engine thrust, while a second launch attempt scheduled for December was eventually called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement following Sunday’s successful launch, Virgin Orbit CEO Richard Branson said:
Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible.
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.
Branson’s company is one of a number that are exploring air-launches as a potential way forward for satellite technology. It’s believed that the system, which is inspired by air-to-ground missile launches, could make satellite launches more efficient, and more accessible to other companies looking to get their tech into orbit. Another satellite launching startup, Rocket Lab, is currently testing a system that would allow its launchers to be caught in mid-air.
Virgin Orbit’s sister company, Virgin Galactic, is also looking into using air-launches for passenger spaceflight, and two years ago became the first to launch a piloted spacecraft into space from mid-air. The VSS Unity, which carried two pilots 1.4 miles beyond Earth’s atmosphere, was released at 43,000 feet by the company’s launch vehicle, VMS Eve.
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Topics: Technology, Now, Richard Branson, Space, Tech