Virgin Orbit launches first satellite mission after SPAC merger

This afternoon, the small satellite launch vehicle Virgin Orbit successfully launched seven small satellites into orbit, marking the third successful mission for spin-off company Virgin Galactic. The loads consisted of: various research satellites for the Department of Defense, along with three small satellites from the companies SatRevolution and Spire Global.

The launch comes less than a week after Virgin Orbit shares first traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. Virgin Orbit announced its plan to go public in August through a merger with special-purpose company SPAC, making it one of three small rocket launch companies to follow the trend in 2021. On Friday, January 7, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart rang the Nasdaq opening bell as the company displayed a model of its primary rocket, LauncherOne, in Times Square in New York City.

Virgin Orbit is one of several rocket companies that have sprung up in recent decades, focused on specifically launching small to medium-sized satellites into orbit. However, the company’s approach to getting these satellites into space is a bit unique compared to its competitors. Rather than launch vertically from the ground, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is designed to take off from under the wing of a carrier plane, a refurbished Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl. The aircraft is intended to take LauncherOne to an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet, where the rocket is then released. In midair, LauncherOne ignites its main engine and propels its payloads the rest of the way into Earth’s orbit.

Today’s flight, dubbed “Above the Clouds,” began at 4:39 p.m. ET, as Cosmic Girl took off from a runway at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Orbit has a testing facility. The plane flew west over the Pacific Ocean, where LauncherOne was released at 5:52 p.m. ET. The aircraft for this mission was piloted by Virgin Orbit pilot Eric Bippert. He was joined in the cockpit by Matthew Stannard, aka Stanny, a test pilot seconded to Virgin Orbit for the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom. stanny was the one that starts the release of LauncherOne from under the wing of Cosmic Girl.

The launch of Virgin Orbit took place on the same day as SpaceX’s Second Launch of the Year, which also sent a crop of small satellites into orbit on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch of SpaceX, dubbed Transporter-3, put as many as 105 small satellites into orbit and launched them one by one into space. Such a flight is often referred to as a rocket share, and it is another option for small satellite manufacturers to get their payload into space. Because SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has a greater capacity than a smaller rocket like LauncherOne, it can carry several small satellites into space at once, sort of like a cosmic carpool. SpaceX aims to launch at least three specialty rideshares per year through its Smallsat Rideshare program.

Rocket rideshares have their drawbacks, however. For starters, small satellite manufacturers often have to wait until enough satellites are packed on one rocket to launch. There are also some logistical issues that can come with launching so many satellites at once. Dedicated small launch providers like Virgin Orbit can tailor their missions to just a few customers and could theoretically provide a faster route to the launch pad. Virgin Orbit even claims that Spire’s satellite was added to today’s flight relatively last minute. “We had them on board in just under two weeks,” Virgin Orbit COO Tony Gingiss said at a press conference ahead of the launch. “Within 24 hours of signing the contract, we had already integrated them into the fairing” – the nose cone on top of the rocket.

Of course, Virgin Orbit will need to increase its launch frequency to provide customers with a fast track to space. So far, the company has averaged about six months between launches. But Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart says the company is targeting six launches this year, which would double its launch frequency. Two of those launches would be from Spaceport Cornwall in the UK, located at Cornwall Airport Newquay.

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