Virgin Orbit Successfully, and Uniquely, Launches Satellite Into Space

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Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic’s sister company, successfully ran its second test of a small satellite-launching rocket on behalf of NASA on Sunday. TechnoCodex reported the first attempt in May 2020 failed to reach orbit.

Virgin Orbit uses a different approach than other major launch providers, like SpaceX. The satellite launched from Virgin Orbit’s customized Boeing 747, which took off from Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in the Mojave desert. By launching from a plane in the air, Virgin Orbit’s system doesn’t require as big of a rocket as others, or as much fuel, which helps keep costs down. During Sunday’s test, the aircraft ascended to 35,000 feet with the satellite-launching rocket affixed to the wing, with the launch occurring once the plane reached a predetermined location.

According to TechnoCodex, Virgin Orbit has been working on its airborne rocket-launching system since 2018. CEO Dan Hart said earlier this month that the company had done an “enormous amount of testing” since May, despite the pandemic. 

“Watching [Virgin Orbit] rise to the occasion and dive into the details and drive the maturation of the system, and doing it in a pandemic environment, is really amazing to watch,” Hart said.

Working with NASA, the launch will attempt to deliver 10 different satellites for various universities, each with different missions. TechnoCodex reported Virgin Orbit has also signed a contract with the Department of Defense. According to Hart, “The goal is to become a dedicated launcher for the budding small satellite market.” 

He added that the company sought help from NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force, and industry professionals. “We really immersed our engineering team with a fresh set of eyes to make sure that basically, we weren’t drinking our own bathwater,” Hart said.

Along with updates via Twitter, like “Our favorite rocket is orbiting our favorite planet! No sweeter feeling,” Virgin Orbit will make photos and video available sometime after the test is completed. The company is now seeking up to $200 million in new funding after spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing the existing airborne launch system.

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