Virgin Orbit launches first satellites with plane-rocket combination system

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Virgin Orbit has successfully launched its first satellites.
Image: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit has been working hard for several years to launch satellites into orbit. On Sunday, it accomplished that goal, making it the third private spaceflight firm to do so, DigitalTrends reports. Only SpaceX and Rocket Lab share that accolade.

Interestingly, Virgin Orbit’s approach is a bit different than those taken by other companies. Rather than launching satellites from the ground with a rocket, it carries a rocket to the edge of the atmosphere aboard a massive jet before launching it. Ultimately, the company believes that this will make launching satellites much cheaper and efficient in the long run.

Mission Success

Sadly, Virgin Orbit didn’t live stream its successful satellite launch on Sunday. It instead kept fans updated with tweets throughout the day. At 5:28 p.m. EST, the company said, “Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit! We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space, carrying 9 CubeSat missions into Low Earth Orbit for our friends @NASA.”

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Before that joyous tweet could be sent, Virgin Orbit had a complicated mission to carry out. Earlier in the day, the company launched its modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, from its Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The plane carried Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket high into the atmosphere before launching it about an hour after taking off. From there, the two-stage system made its way to Low Earth Orbit. Roughly three hours after it detached from Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne deployed its nine CubeSat satellites.

This is a massive achievement for the company and is certainly worth celebrating. Virgin Orbit’s CEO, Richard Branson, said in a tweet that Sunday’s mission will “unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”

The company’s most recent success comes after it suffered a setback in May 2020. That mission ended in failure when the rocket’s first-stage engine shut down due to a fuel line issue. Overcoming that hurdle says a lot about Virgin Orbit’s resilience and its dedication to launching satellites with its novel method.

What Comes Next?

After Sunday’s launch, Virgin Orbit’s future is significantly more exciting. The company has now proven that it is capable of safely delivering payloads to orbit with the plane-rocket combination system. Now, it can start to turn that aptitude into a business to compete with rivals like SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

Both of those companies use a traditional ground-to-orbit approach to launch their satellites. Virgin Orbit claims that its unique combination system gives clients more flexibility regarding when and where they’d like to launch their satellites.

Cosmic Girl can take off from any spaceport and Virgin plans to create a global network of them. This will make it possible to launch small satellites independently of larger missions to get them where they need to go more efficiently.

It seems that there will certainly be room in the private spaceflight industry for Virgin Orbit’s approach. However, only time will tell how successful it will be at competing with the likes of SpaceX.

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