Virgin Orbit successfully deployed a set of satellites in orbit on Sunday by firing them into space on a rocket launched from a jet plane.
The achievement makes Virgin Orbit only the third privately funded space company to reach orbit, placing it in an elite club alongside SpaceX and Rocket Lab.
Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, took off from the company’s Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert at 10:38 a.m. PT before flying out over the Pacific where, at around 11:40 a.m. PT, it released its satellite-laden LauncherOne rocket from beneath its left wing.
Three hours after launching the two-stage rocket, Virgin Orbit was able to confirm the successful deployment of nine satellites for NASA.
“Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit!” the company tweeted at around 3 p.m. PT, adding, “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.”
Virgin Orbit didn’t livestream the event, instead keeping followers informed via a steady stream of tweets. Later in the day, it posted dramatic footage of the rocket firing from the aircraft.
Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021
Virgin Orbit founder Richard Branson said the successful mission would “unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”
NASA chief Jim Bridenstine was suitably impressed by the feat, and of course delighted to see the space agency’s satellites safely deployed, tweeting: “Congratulations to the @Virgin_Orbit team! A great achievement!” SpaceX boss Elon Musk and Rocket Lab head Peter Beck also offered their congratulations via Twitter.
The mission was Virgin Orbit’s second try at reaching orbit. An attempt in May 2020 ended in failure when, just seconds after igniting, an anomaly with the rocket’s first-stage NewtonThree engine caused it to shut down. An investigation revealed the failure had been caused by a fuel line issue, which it managed to resolve.
Sunday’s successful effort means Virgin Orbit will now set about building its business as a small-satellite launcher, competing with the likes of SpaceX and Rocket Lab.
Both SpaceX and Rocket Lab launch satellites into space using more conventional ground-based rocket launches. Virgin Orbit says its markedly different air-launch system will take advantage of a global network of spaceports designed to give companies seeking to deploy small satellites more options for when and where they fly into orbit. The video below offers an overview of Virgin Orbit’s launch system as well as its plans for the future.