Virgin Orbit is about to embark on the first ever launch demo of its rocket, LauncherOne.
This rocket has a somewhat distinctive air-launch to orbit strategy that, if successful, could
offer a faster, cheaper and more flexible way for small satellites to be sent into orbit.
And there’s a lot riding on this upcoming test, Virgin Orbit just secured a $35 million
deal with the U.S. Space Force to launch 44 small satellites spread across three missions.
And although it only deals with small payloads,
LauncherOne is still an impressive design. It’s an expendable two stage rocket, measuring
about 21-meters long. Its structure is an all carbon composite design, which reduces
the structural weight of the rocket. This allows the rocket to carry up to 500 kg of
cargo to orbit. And in the world of small satellites, that could mean launching dozens
on a single mission. The company joins an already crowded field
of rocket companies competing to inject small satellites into low-Earth orbit, but Virgin
Orbit hopes to stand out thanks to its different approach used by only a handful of companies
to give rockets a shortcut as they make their way to orbit.
The first stage of our launch system is a Boeing 747. So that's one big difference.
That gets us 35,000 feet of altitude and close to Mach 1, before a rocket engine ever ignites.
And by the time the rocket does ignite, the 747 jet has already cleared the lower parts
of the atmosphere. This helps the rocket avoid the kind of drag experienced by vertically
fired rockets. But the most exciting aspect of the system is launch flexibility. Unlike
your typical rocket that depends on a launch pad, Virgin Orbit’s 747 jet named Cosmic
Girl, only needs a runway for takeoff. After takeoff, the aircraft flies out over
the ocean, reaching an altitude of about 10,600 meters. Before LauncherOne drops from beneath Cosmic Girl,
the pilot performs a pitch-up maneuver, positioning the plane at an almost 30 degree
angle relative to the Earth. From there, the rocket is released, free falling for roughly
five seconds before its NewtonThree engine roars to life. After about 3 minutes, the
first stage separates and the second stage’s engine continues onward. Soon after, the fairing
pops off as a series of engine shut offs are initiated to place the cargo in the desired
orbit. Once there, the small satellite is deployed and second stage plummets, burning
up in the atmosphere. To ensure everything is ready for the big
demo, a number of tests and rehearsals have been ongoing to ensure all aspects of the
launch system are finally good to go. From engine hot fire tests, to ground operations
system checks and a flight drop test. On the one hand, it feels like you're running
a marathon and you're towards the end of the marathon. And in that, you can look back and
think back of all of the miles, all of the aches and pains and soreness that you felt
here or there. And feel a sense of pride that you worked through those, and you're moving
forward. And at the same time, you know that some of the most intense times are just ahead.
And that’s because there’s a lot riding on this demo. If successful, Virgin Orbit
could become a major player when it comes to placing small satellites into orbit, an
industry that’s seen a recent explosion. Small satellites have a couple of really unique
roles. The ability to do real work in space in small forms is enabling a
whole host of participants in space, who never before could have afforded it. We now have
the ability where businesses, educational institutions, countries who never would have
thought of investing in space, and using space capabilities, can now put it into their plans.
So far, Virgin Orbit has a number of locations strategically chosen to help LauncherOne reach
multiple low-earth orbit sites. And if all works out, Virgin Orbit could soon be ready
for its first launch with a payload onboard.
There's an incredible focus and sort of hunkering down with the team to sort of almost meditate
on the system, the tests that we've done, the analysis, to make sure we're fully connected
and driving forward together. If you want to catch up on some more rocket
launches, check out our playlist here. If there’s another launch you’d like us to
cover, let us know in the comments below. Make sure to subscribe and thanks for watching.