Second Time’s a Charm for Virgin Orbit

Second Time’s a Charm for Virgin Orbit

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit scored a success today on its second try to reach orbit.  The LauncherOne air-launched rocket delivered 10 NASA-sponsored cubesats on this second demonstration mission, Demo-2, after its first attempt failed last May.

Virgin Orbit is separate from Branson’s better-known Virgin Galactic that also uses an airplane to launch a rocket-powered spacecraft.  Virgin Galactic’s goal is to launch people on suborbital flights that go just high enough to be considered “space” then glide back to Earth, not enter orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s goal is to do just what its name implies, put satellites into orbit.  The carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, takes off from a runway and at a designated altitude separates the two-stage LauncherOne rocket, which then fires its own engine to climb into orbit.  These demonstration flights are taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, but the company plans to launch from just about anywhere in the world.

On the first try in May 2020, the first stage failed because of a problem with an engine propellant feed line.

Today, the first and second stages did what they were designed to do and the 10 NASA-sponsored cubesats reached their intended orbit.  Under the command of Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, Cosmic Girl departed from Mojave at 10:50 am Pacific Time (1:50 pm Eastern) and flew to a point in the Pacific Ocean 50 miles south the Channel Islands where LauncherOne was dropped.

The cubesats were designed and built by eight U.S. universities and one NASA center as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

  • PolarCube – University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, Colorado
  • MiTEE – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • CACTUS-1 – Capitol Technology University, Laurel, Maryland
  • Q-PACE – University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida
  • TechEdSat-7 – NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
  • RadFXSat-2 – Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
  • EXOCUBE – California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California
  • CAPE-3 – University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, Louisiana
  • PICS (two CubeSats) – Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

NASA’s Launch Services Program selected Virgin Orbit as one of three companies for Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) in 2015.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was among many tweeting congratulations.

This article has been updated.

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