Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit has put a rocket in 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 “transition into commercial service for its next mission”.
Eight months after a previous test ended in failure, the company’s LauncherOne rocket was on Sunday dropped from a Boeing 747 — nicknamed Cosmic Girl — off the coast of southern California at 11:39am Pacific time.
The rocket ignited moments later and headed towards space.
“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company posted on Twitter 10 minutes later, confirming a successful first phase. “Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.”
The rocket was carrying a payload of 10 small satellites that will be used as part of Nasa educational missions. Virgin Orbit confirmed at 2:28pm that the payload had been deployed into low orbit.
“We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space,” the team wrote.
Virgin Orbit’s system of airborne rocket launches, which take place at 35,000 feet, stands apart from its competitors in that it removes the need for specialist ground-based launch sites.
Virgin Orbit said its method opened up the potential to send payloads into orbit from airstrips all over the world, and lessened the risk of weather-related disruption to flight plans.
For Sunday’s test, Cosmic Girl took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California.
Virgin Orbit, which was spun out as a separate company three years ago, is looking to catch up with competitors in the increasingly competitive commercial market for space transportation. Long Beach-based Rocket Lab has to date launched 96 satellites, according to its website. Its next mission — codenamed “Another One Leaves The Crust” — is set for launch when conditions allow from a site in New Zealand.
Sunday’s mission will give Virgin Orbit confidence in its strategy, following a failed test of the system in May last year. In that attempt, which carried a dummy payload, the rocket failed to fully ignite once dropped from the 747. Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said later that a breach in a propellent feed line had caused the rocket to prematurely shut down.
In a statement following Sunday’s test, Richard Branson said: “Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible”.
Virgin Orbit is a separate effort to Virgin Galactic, a company that intends to offer space tourism beginning later this year.
Galactic will compete with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which carried out a successful full-scale test of its New Shepard capsule last week, bringing a dummy — named Mannequin Skywalker, a play on the Star Wars character — safely back to earth after a trip to the edge of space.