Virgin Orbit just launched a 747 rocket

Sunday morning, Virgin Orbit has become the third privately funded US missile company to reach orbit – and the only one to accomplish this feat from the air. The company’s liquid propellant missile, called LauncherOne, was launched from under a wing Cosmic girlVirgin Orbit Boeing 747, off the coast of California. Cosmic girlPilot Kelly Latimer detached from the rocket at about 30,000 feet – the cruising altitude of a typical passenger plane – and after a few seconds of free fall, LauncherOne ignited its engines and boosted itself in space. Once in orbit, the missile launched its 10-cubic payload built by researchers from NASA and several American universities before returning to Earth.

The successful launch was a welcome win for Virgin’s team, which has faced setbacks ever since First launch attempt Last spring. The first test flight was aborted in May seconds after the launch of the missile due to a break in the fuel line. After engineers identified and fixed the problem, company officials planned a second launch in December, however I decided to postpone it As Covid-19 cases spike around their Los Angeles headquarters.

“We’ve gone in an enormous amount of effort to ensure the safety of the team, and a lot of the launches and our activities are hypothetical,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told reporters in a call ahead of Sunday’s launch. “Doing this in the face of a pandemic is really cool.”

Today’s launch marks the culmination of nearly a decade of work by engineers at Orbit the VirginIt is one of two missile companies founded by a billionaire Richard Branson. In 2018, its sister space company Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic, made it Date By launching a spacecraft carrying two humans from under a dedicated plane, which led them to launch rockets to the edge of space. Branson clearly loves to launch things from airplanes and he has staffed both companies with engineers and pilots who make it look easy. The question now is, can he turn it into a sustainable business?

Aerial launch is usually associated with guided missiles at targets on the Earth’s surface, but it has a long history in the space industry as well. The first air-launched orbital missile, known as Pegasus, was sent into orbit Early 1990’s By Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has since been folded into Northrop Grumman. Like the LauncherOne, Pegasus is capable of increasing about 1,000 pounds of payload in space, and the missile is dropped from the belly of a devastating airliner. But in the past 30 years, Pegasus has only flown 44 missions. To put that in perspective, SpaceX has flown more than twice that number in the past decade.

“When I started studying feasibility studies and thinking whether we should do it, Pegasus was the flashing neon sign that was flashing in my vision 24/7,” Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, told WIRED. From the company’s first launch attempt last May. “Technologically, Pegasus has been a huge hit. But from a market perspective, it probably isn’t.”

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Pomerantz says the reason Pegasus failed to attract many customers is because when it launched, those customers weren’t there. The small commercial satellite industry has exploded in the past few years, and now there are hundreds of companies looking for a cheap flight into space. Pegasus is still around, but the cost of launching it has ballooned over the past few decades. In the 1990s, NASA paid off $ 16 million To launch Pegasus. today is It cost closer to $ 60 million. Even considering inflation, that cost has nearly tripled, and it exceeds what most of these small satellite companies are able to afford. An air launch was an idea ahead of its time – but Pomerantz now thinks the time has come.

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