Virgin Orbit set to debut orbital air-launch later this month

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne meets Cosmic Girl 747 | Virgin
LauncherOne is prepared next to Virgin Orbit’s carrier plane, Cosmic Girl. Credit: Virgin Orbit

MAY 4, 2020–According to an article published today by Spaceflight Now, Virgin Orbit appears to be targeting later this month for their debut of the LauncherOne air-launched satellite launch vehicle from their 747-400 carrier “Cosmic Girl”.

On May 1, Virgin Orbit successfully completed the first wet dress rehearsal of a LauncherOne rocket set to fly to space, as highlighted in a tweet.

LauncherOne is a rocket designed to compete in the small-sat commercial market, against rockets such as Rocket Lab’s Electron and Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus and Taurus. Virgin Orbit claims that LauncherOne can lift up to 300 kg, or 660 pounds into sun-synchronous polar orbit. SSO orbits are routinely used by imaging and sensing smallsats. A dedicated LauncherOne flight costs around $12 million USD.

LauncherOne’s incredibly small footprint – every support system is contained within this picture. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit also tweeted that the wet dress rehearsal with “all commodities loaded” is a very major event right before launch. Virgin is very outwardly showing at this point they are ready to launch. In an interview with Spaceflight Now, Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO stated that “May is what we’re targeting” for a launch date.

As proven on the April 12 captive carry test, which was using liquid nitrogen to simulate fuels, Virgin has a very different way of doing launch. Instead of on a launchpad, the LauncherOne vehicle is attached to the left wing of the Cosmic Girl 747-400. The plane flies out over the coast of Los Angeles, and then pitches up 25 degrees, and on an operational flight, deploys the rocket.

Four seconds later, the NewtonThree engine aboard LauncherOne ignites, accelerating the vehicle from 550 mph to 8,000 mph (3,600 m/s). After a 3 minute burn, with a consistent output of 75,000 lbf (334 kN), the first stage separates. The second stage, powered by a NewtonFour engine, ignites. NewtonFour burns for 6 minutes over multiple burns, outputting 5,000 lbf (22 kN) and accelerating the vehicle to orbital velocity – 17,500 mph (7820 m/s).

LauncherOne is an incredibly modern vehicle too. It currently uses a fully autonomous flight safety system (AFTS), allowing it to be launched from just about anywhere. 24 rockets can be built per year at the current pace, with all engines manufactured by a hybrid additive-subtractive

Virgin Orbit is doing this albeit the current global circumstances. They only need around 20 technicians to ready the 70-foot-long (21 meter) rocket for launch day, far less than traditional launch vehicles. That means that the count can proceed – even with distancing. To add to that, Orbit has been developing ventilators to help out in the crisis – a design of which has now been approved by the FDA.

Space Scout is currently in the process of reaching out to Virgin Orbit to get a launch date. If one is provided, the article will be updated accordingly.

Go LauncherOne. Go Virgin Orbit.

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