Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering ten NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after failing in its first attempt last year.
Virgin Orbit is a company within the Virgin Group which provides launch services for small satellites. The US-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl 35,000 feet over the Pacific before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.
“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, which is named 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 70-foot 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 much needed 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.
The latest test also pushes 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.