Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit has put a rocket into space, demonstrating for the first time the feasibility of its “air launch” strategy for space transportation.
Following the test, in which it sent small satellites into low orbit, the company said it “would now go into commercial service for its next mission.”
Eight months after a previous test ended in failure, the company’s LauncherOne rocket was jettisoned from a Boeing 747 – dubbed Cosmic Girl – off the coast of Southern California at 11:39 a.m. PT on Sunday.
The rocket ignited moments later and headed into space.
“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company posted on Twitter 10 minutes later, confirming a successful first phase. “All of the team members who aren’t on Mission Control right now are completely nuts.”
The rocket was carrying a payload of 10 small satellites that will be used in NASA’s educational missions. Virgin Orbit confirmed at 2:28 p.m. that the payload had been deployed in low orbit.
“We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first space mission,” the team wrote.
Virgin Orbit’s airborne rocket launch system, which takes place at 35,000 feet, sets itself apart from its competitors in that it eliminates the need for specialized ground launch sites.
Virgin Orbit said its method opens up the ability to send payloads into orbit from airstrips around the world and reduces the risk of weather-related disruption to flight plans.
For Sunday’s test, Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California.
Virgin Orbit, which was formed as a separate company three years ago, is looking to catch up with its competitors in the increasingly competitive commercial space transportation market. Long Beach-based Rocket Lab has launched 96 satellites to date, according to its website. Its next mission – dubbed “Another One Leaves The Crust” – is to be launched when conditions permit from a site in New Zealand.
Sunday’s mission will give Virgin Orbit confidence in its strategy, after a failed system test in May last year. In this attempt, which carried a dummy payload, the rocket failed to fully ignite when dropped from the 747. Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart later said a breach in a line propellant power had caused the rocket to stop prematurely.
In a statement after Sunday’s test, Richard Branson said: “Virgin Orbit has achieved something that many thought was impossible.”
Virgin Orbit is a separate effort from Virgin Galactic, a company that intends to offer space tourism from the end of the year.
Galactic will be competing against Blue Origin from Jeff Bezos, who successfully completed a full-scale test of his New Shepard capsule last week, bringing back a mannequin – named Mannequin Skywalker, a play about the Star Wars character – in safe on Earth after a trip to the edge of space.