A liquid fuel rocket targeting space was released on Monday by a Boeing 747 flying off the coast of California and detonated for the first time. Although the missile had to be destroyed after a few seconds, the demonstration flight is a success for operator Virgin Orbit. The reason for the cancellation of the flight is not yet known; the analysis of the data has just started.
The first few seconds after being released were also the most critical phase of the undertaking. “We’ll be testing a number of critical systems in quick succession in ways we couldn’t do on the ground,” Virgin Orbit had tweeted just before. The company is a subsidiary of Virgin Galactic, so it is also majority owned by Abu Dhabi. The Virgin Group and other shareholders hold further shares. Both Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit want to launch missiles mounted on the underside of an aircraft from the air.
Horizontal start from the air
Virgin Orbit uses a Boeing 747 to which the two-stage LauncherOne rocket is attached. LauncherOne has a payload of up to 300 kilograms and is intended to bring satellites into orbits synchronized with the sun. During the demonstration flight on Monday there was no real satellite but a “pretty inactive mass” on board the rocket.
Virgin Galactic uses a purpose-built aircraft with a rocket-propelled VSS Unity spacecraft attached to it. Controlled by two pilots, Unity is supposed to take six passengers into space for a few minutes – actually 13 years ago, but space travel is also not that easy for Virgin Galactic.
The goal of the Virgin Orbits maiden flight on Monday was to release LauncherOne and ignite the first rocket stage. It was a success. Anything else would have been a bonus: firing the second stage of the rocket, making it to space, and perhaps even exposing the test mass symbolizing a satellite. It should have burned up in the atmosphere again soon.
“We will continue the mission as long as possible,” Virgin Orbit announced before the launch, “The longer LauncherOne flies, the more data we will collect.” It is not easy; in the history of first missions into space, half had failed. “No matter how this demonstration ends, we look forward to learning as much as possible.”
Second LauncherOne is already built
For now remains Pegasus, a solid fuel rocket developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, the only rocket that has successfully flown into space from a flying aircraft. There have been 44 take-offs since Pegasus’ maiden flight 30 years ago, 39 of which were completely successful. But a Pegasus flight cost more than $ 50 million six years ago – to radically undercut this price is Virgin Orbit’s goal.
Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space is scheduled to launch military satellites and has already announced an order. From October 2021 at the earliest, VOX Space is expected to put three groups of small satellites into orbit for the US Space Force. For that, LauncherOne has to get going. The second rocket is already on a test stand in Long Beach, California.