Mon.
Mar 1
2021
Virgin Orbit Enters New Space Race With Satellite Launch

Image: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

Richard Branson, a billionaire founder of the satellite launch service Virgin Orbit, just joined the race for space commercialization. His company successfully launched an air rocket that reached space for the first time, marking an achievement after the company aborted the rocket’s first test launch in May last year.

On January 18, Virgin Orbit’s specially outfitted Boeing 747 jet named Cosmic Girl climbed to an altitude of roughly 6 miles above the Pacific Ocean and successfully launched a rocket into space.

“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” Virgin Orbit announced on Twitter during the test mission and confirmed the correct deployment of the spacecraft onboard.

“This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit. I can’t wait to see the incredible missions…the team will launch to change the world for good,” commented Branson.

The rocket, a 70-foot launcher designed for carrying satellites of small size, successfully placed 10 satellites in orbit for NASA. The cluster of very small satellites known as CubeSats were developed and built as part of a NASA educational programme involving multiple American universities.

The successful launch is an important milestone for Virgin Orbit after it struggled to reach space last year. The rocket’s main engine shut down prematurely shortly after releasing from the airplane because of a technical problem.

This time, it seems that Virgin Orbit has learned its lessons, while the launch also supplied enough data to conduct more successful launches in the future.

Most importantly, the current test has catapulted Branson’s company into a competitive commercial space race for small, lower-cost satellites. Virgin Orbit is entering into a field with such companies as Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company, the Texas-based Firefly Aerospace, and Relativity Space, which plans to launch 3-D manufactured rockets, as well as tens of other small rocket start-ups across the world.

There is a growing demand worldwide for more flexible and affordable ways of getting satellites and other devices into orbit, and Virgin Orbit just acquired a competitive edge.

Virgin Orbit could now offer a unique “air-launch” method of sending small satellites to orbit at a lower price and along with a more familiar way. Using aircraft as the launch platform, the company could theoretically send up spacecraft anywhere in the world. This supplies a significant competitive advantage and allows satellites to be placed more efficiently and minimize weather-related cancellations.

Virgin Orbit touts this flexibility and prepares to drastically expand the global geography of its launches, which could supply multiple lucrative deals in the years to come.

The company ultimately hopes to expand its business and include commercial companies as well as U.S. military and defence satellites.

In past years, there have been many discussions about cost differences between ground and flying launches. Although SpaceX’s reusable rockets and Virgin’s safe return flights are critical for space travel commercialization, aircraft launches could be less expensive.

LauncherOne would be able to hoist up to a few hundred pounds — satellites that would range “from the size of a very big refrigerator to the size of a toaster oven,” Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president, told The Washington Post.

As Virgin Orbit’s portfolio is set to expand, it might cement the small-satellites niche and challenge other competitors, pushing them to cut costs or seek technological improvements to reduce them. 

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Dimitri Frolowsckii

By Dimitri Frolowsckii

Dimitri Frolowsckii is a political analyst and consultant.