MOJAVE — Virgin Orbit achieved its mission goal when it successfully put its LauncherOne into space on Jan. 17.
Carried aboard Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747 plane, the LauncherOne rocket delivered its package of 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program.
Cosmic Girl launched from Mojave Air and Space Port and and launched a 70-foot rocket attached to the plane's wing over the Pacific Ocean 50 miles south of the Channel Islands. Once released, the rocket lit up and achieved orbit, according to a Virgin news release.
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.
The company later commented via Twitter of the continued good fortune.
“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit! Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.”
This marked Virgin Orbit's second attempt to launch a payload from Cosmic Girl. The first attempt in March 2020, which came after years of planning, did not reach orbit after a failed ignition.
The Jan. 17 flight was initially planned for late December, but Virgin Orbit scrubbed it because at least a quarter of its crew went into self-isolation due to exposure to the coronavirus. The flight was rescheduled for mid-January.
With Sunday's successful result, the rocket deployed 10 CubeSats for NASA as part of the space agency's educational program involving universities.
According to Virgin Orbit's news release, nearly all of the CubeSat missions were designed, built and tested by universities across the U.S., including Brigham Young University (PICS), the University of Michigan (MiTEE), and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (CAPE-3).
"Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit," said Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson in the news release. 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. I can’t wait to see the incredible missions Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good."
According to the company, the mission also marks another first: no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space before Jan. 17.
“A new gateway to space has just sprung open! That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity," said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. "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, based in Long Beach, was spun off from Virgin Galactic with the intent to focus on dedicated launch service for commercial and government-built small satellites.