Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has successfully deployed 10 payloads for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

The California-based company uses a technique called air launch to launch its rockets from under the wing of a jet aircraft, rather than from a traditional launch pad on the ground. The technique improves both the payload capacity of the rocket and its flexibility and means satellites can be launched from different airports in different locations across the world.

Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, customised Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port yesterday and flew out to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles south of the Channel Islands.

LauncherOne deployed 10 CubeSats into orbit

After a smooth release from the aircraft, the two-stage rocket ignited and powered itself to orbit. At the conclusion of the flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats into the team’s precise target orbit, marking a major step forward for Virgin Orbit in its quest to break down barriers preventing affordable and responsive access to space.

The payloads onboard LauncherOne today were selected by NASA LSP as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). Nearly all of the CubeSat missions were designed, built and tested by universities across the US, including Brigham Young University (PICS), the University of Michigan (MiTEE), and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (CAPE-3).

Virgin Orbit’s flight also marks a historic first: no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fuelled rocket had successfully reached space before today.

“New gateway to space” now open

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said: “A new gateway to space has just sprung open! That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier.”

Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson, added: “Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit. 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 Dan and the team will launch to change the world for good.”

Virgin Orbit will be transitioning into commercial service for its next missions. Subsequent launches have been booked by customers ranging from the US Space Force and the UK’s Royal Air

Force to commercial customers like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL and Denmark’s GomSpace.

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