Virgin Orbit is in the middle of its debut commercial mission from Southern California, five months after the company first reached orbit during a January test flight. Seven satellites from three different countries are loaded onto a rocket that blasted off in midair from Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 less than an hour after the plane departed the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, took off at 9:53AM ET. Less than an hour later at 10:47AM, a 70-foot-long two-stage rocket called LauncherOne dropped from the plane’s left wing and ignited its single engine to zoom toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket is carrying the Netherlands’ first military satellite, four tiny satellites from a Defense Department test program, and the first two of 14 imaging satellites for SatRevolution’s constellation.
It will take roughly 40 minutes for the rocket to deploy the satellites into orbit.
This is the first mission Virgin Orbit decided to livestream publicly. You can watch the video stream here on YouTube. The company also plans to tweet out updates during the mission.
Virgin Orbit calls the mission “Tubular Bells: Part One,” marking its third flight since May 2020 and the debut of its commercial satellite service. That first flight attempt failed to reach orbit when an interrupted fuel line caused the rocket to shut down shortly after detaching from Cosmic Girl. The next attempt in January, carrying satellite payloads for the first time, was a success and capped Virgin Orbit’s test program. Wednesday’s Tubular Bells mission will be followed by at least one more mission this year, CEO Dan Hart told reporters on a Tuesday call (without providing a specific date for that mission).
The missions will precede a much busier launch schedule in 2022. “Now it’s a matter of just continuing to ramp up and moving rockets through integration,” Hart said, expecting six launches in 2022. He added Virgin Orbit signed “quite a few” launch deals after its January test flight.
While more common missions to space involve rockets launching vertically from the ground, Virgin Orbit’s method of air-launching a rocket off a modified Boeing 747 aims to provide its satellite customers a quicker and more precise way to get to things into orbit. That technique is particularly attractive for companies building cheap small satellites, an increasingly popular sector of the satellite market as launch costs come down.
Update 10:48AM ET: Adds update on LauncherOne’s deployment from its carrier plane, and background on small satellite market.