Virgin Orbit successfully launched a payload of satellites to space on Wednesday for its debut commercial mission from Southern California, five months after the company first reached orbit during a January test flight. Seven satellites from three different countries were deployed from a rocket that blasted off in midair from Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 after departing the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, took off at 9:53AM ET, flying westward toward the Pacific ocean. Less than an hour later at 10:47AM, a 70-foot-long two-stage rocket called LauncherOne dropped from the plane’s left wing and ignited its single engine to zoom toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. The Netherlands’ first military satellite, four tiny satellites from a Defense Department test program, and the first two of 14 imaging satellites for SatRevolution’s constellation were on board.
“perfectly hit our target”
The rocket’s second stage detached from the first stage in space minutes later and executed what the company calls a “BBQ roll” — where it does a little spin to expose all sides to sunlight, evenly heating the spacecraft as it carries the satellites toward orbit. The stage reached orbit at 10:58AM and deployed the satellites at about 11:27AM, capping a roughly two-hour mission in all. The mission was the first that Virgin Orbit decided to livestream publicly.
“Preliminary analysis of the data tells us we perfectly hit our target orbit and payloads are deploying,” Virgin Galactic tweeted. A spokesman said “all payloads confirmed deployed.”
Virgin Orbit, the sister company of billionaire Richard Branson’s space tourism firm Virgin Galactic, calls the mission “Tubular Bells: Part One,” marking its third flight since May 2020 and the debut of its commercial satellite service. That first flight attempt failed to reach orbit when an interrupted fuel line caused the rocket to shut down shortly after detaching from Cosmic Girl. The next attempt in January, carrying satellite payloads for the first time, was a success and capped Virgin Orbit’s test program. Wednesday’s Tubular Bells mission will be followed by at least one more mission this year, CEO Dan Hart told reporters on a Tuesday call (without providing a specific date for that mission).
The missions will precede a much busier launch schedule in 2022. “Now it’s a matter of just continuing to ramp up and moving rockets through integration,” Hart said, expecting six launches in 2022. He added Virgin Orbit signed “quite a few” launch deals after its January test flight.
While more common missions to space involve rockets launching vertically from the ground, Virgin Orbit’s method of air-launching a rocket off a modified Boeing 747 aims to provide its satellite customers a quicker and more precise way to get things into orbit. That technique is particularly attractive for companies building cheap small satellites, an increasingly popular sector of the satellite market as launch costs come down.
The air-launch method and smaller rockets from companies like Rocket Lab and “ride-share” missions on bigger rockets were primarily born from growing demand for small satellite services. Virgin Orbit’s small satellite launch on Wednesday will have company — Elon Musk’s SpaceX is poised to launch a batch of 88 small satellites to space at 2:56PM ET, marking its second in-house ride-share mission.
Update 10:48AM ET: Added update on LauncherOne’s deployment from its carrier plane, and background on small satellite market.
Update 1:23PM ET: Added update on successful satellite deployment