Branson’s Virgin Orbit reaches space with key mid-air rocket launch
Washington: Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering 10 NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket’s first test launch last year.
The Long Beach, California-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl some 10.67 kilometres over the Pacific on Sunday (US time) before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.
Virgin Orbit Boeing 747-400 rocket launch platform, named Cosmic Girl, takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port, Mojave (MHV) on its second orbital launch demonstration in the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles.Credit:AP
"According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!" the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, dubbed Launch Demo 2. "In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo."
Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 21-metre launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, successfully placed 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA, the company said on Twitter.
The successful test and clean payload deployment was a needed double-win for Virgin Orbit, which last year failed its attempt to reach space when LauncherOne’s main engine shut down prematurely moments after releasing from its carrier aircraft. The shortened mission generated key test data for the company, it said.
Sunday’s test also thrusts Virgin Orbit into an increasingly competitive commercial space race, offering a unique “air-launch” method of sending satellites to orbit alongside rivals such as Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace, which have designed small-launch systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.
Virgin executives say high-altitude launches allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently and also minimize weather-related cancellations compared to more traditional rockets launched vertically from a ground pad.
Virgin Orbit’s government services subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the system to the US military, with a first mission slated for October under a $US35 million US Space Force contract for three missions.
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