In this day and age, the development and manufacture of spacecraft, along with the providence of space transportation services, has gradually been taken up by private enterprises. Even as the currently most prominent of these aerospace companies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has been making great strides with its line of reusable rocket launch vehicles and engines seeing use by NASA, one cannot discount the Virgin Group’s own aerospace arm. Virgin Orbit has been focused on perfecting its own rocket delivery system for launching satellites. Months after a failed launch attempt, a second launch that took place this Sunday, finally got results.
According to The Verge, Virgin Orbit successfully deployed its LauncherOne satellite rocket on January 17. LauncherOne was taken airborne by a Boeing 747 customized as a high-altitude launch platform for Virgin Orbit, at around 1:30PM ET from its launch site at the Mojave Air and Space Port, California. On a later update at their official Twitter page, Virgin Orbit announced that their 747 “mothership” has reached the target launch altitude of 35,000 feet. At this point the LauncherOne rocket, attached to the plane’s wing, was dropped and ignited, reaching Earth orbit and deploying its payload of several satellites without problems.
This repeat attempt by Virgin Orbit to deploy their LauncherOne rocket contrasted slightly to their initial trial that took place last year in May 2020. The 747 carrier had reached 35,000 feet and deployed the rocket, only for it to fail in reaching escape velocity into orbit. A later investigation had revealed that a liquid fuel line inside LauncherOne’s first stage engine broke, causing a premature ignition shutdown. The problem has since been corrected by Virgin Orbit and subjected to rigorous testing over the past year despite the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, as noted by the company’s CEO Dan Hart.
Speaking of COVID, the second launch of the bug-fixed LauncherOne rocket was actually scheduled for this past December, only to fall through after a number of personnel for Virgin Orbit’s launch team at Mojave were subjected to precautionary quarantine. This too was resolved with an intensified implementation of safety protocols, from the use of PPEs to physical distancing, among others.
With its triumph this past Sunday, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne has been recorded by NASA as the first successful launch of a liquid-fuel air-launched orbital rocket. Its payload for this flight was an impressive 10 CubeSat mini-satellites developed by several universities. Virgin Orbit is the sister company of Virgin Galactic, which operates the refurbished Boeing 747 launch vehicle, nicknamed “Cosmic Girl.”Image from ABC News