The Virgin Orbit 747, nicknamed Space Girl, took off from California around 10:30 a.m. with a LauncherOne rocket under its left wing. The plane flew over the Pacific Ocean before releasing the rocket, allowing the LauncherOne to fire its rocket engine and move at more than 17,000 miles per hour, fast enough to begin an orbital flight to Earth.
Literally and figuratively, this goes way beyond what we got in our first launch demo that the company posted on its Twitter account.
The rocket flew a group of small satellites for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, which allows high school and college students to design and assemble small satellites that NASA then pays to launch into space. The nine small satellites from virgin orbit flew into orbit on Sunday, including a temperature observation satellite from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a satellite from the University of Central Florida that will study how small particles collide in space, and an experimental radiation detection satellite from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
About four hours after Saturday’s launch, Virgin Orbit confirmed in a tweet that all satellites had been successfully placed in the target orbit.
Thanks to this successful mission, Virgin Orbit is only the third so-called new space company – startups hoping to reshape the traditional industry with innovative technology – to enter orbit after SpaceX and Rocket Lab. This success also paves the way for Virgin Orbit to begin launching satellites for a number of already identified customers, including NASA, the military and private companies that use satellites for commercial purposes.
Virgin Galactic, which specialized in human suborbital flights, left Virgin Galactic in 2017. Virgin Orbit conducted several tests to release its LauncherOne launcher, flying the rocket over the Pacific Ocean and allowing it to plunge into the ocean to test the 747’s ejection mechanism. Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to launch a rocket into orbit took place last May, when the LauncherOne rocket malfunctioned shortly after launch and the flight was aborted. This failure was not unexpected.
Launching from Earth into space is incredibly difficult, the company said after a launch attempt in 2020.
Virgin Orbit expected a second launch attempt in late 2020, but was forced to postpone it after several of its employees tested positive for Covid-19, according to an email from the company. As a result, many employees were potentially exposed to the virus and placed in preventive quarantine, the company said.
We are grateful and fortunate that most of our teammates have now undergone a preventive quarantine so that we can begin our preparatory work, the company said on December 31, but with even more extreme measures in place to protect the health and safety of our team.
Virginia Orbit, like other U.S. space companies, is being allowed to continue operations during the pandemic because the government designated space as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure in March. As led by one industry group, the sector’s commercial activities are also linked to critical U.S. national security projects and NASA programs.
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