In a historic feat challenging SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Virgin Orbit which is the sister company of billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism outfit Virgin Galactic, on Monday successfully sent its LauncherOne rocket into space via air launch, and not through a traditional one from a launch pad on Earth.
The rocket, which had failed to reach orbit last year during the first test launch, successfully deployed 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Programme (LSP) this time, onboard a customised 747-400 jet dubbed as “Cosmic Girl”.
“It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit. 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,” said Sir Branson.
Virgin Orbit’s novel launch system uses a technique called air launch, in which a rocket is launched from under the wing of a jet aircraft, rather than from a traditional launch pad on the ground.
In addition to improving the payload capacity of the rocket, this technique allows the LauncherOne system to be the world’s most flexible and responsive launch service — flying on short notice and from a wide variety of locations to access any orbit.
Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port and flew out to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles south of the Channel Islands.
After a smooth release from the aircraft, the two-stage rocket ignited and powered itself to orbit.
At the conclusion of the flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats into the team’s precise target orbit, marking a major step forward for Virgin Orbit in its quest to bust down the barriers preventing affordable and responsive access to space.
The flight also marks a historical first: no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space before this day.
“A new gateway to space has just sprung open! Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement.
With this successful demonstration in the books, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission.
“Congratulations to the @Virgin_Orbit team! A great achievement!” Tweeted Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator.