A 70-foot rocket, riding beneath the wing of a retrofitted Boeing 747 aircraft, detached from the plane and fired itself into Earth's orbit on Sunday — marking the first successful launch for the California-based rocket startup Virgin Orbit.
Virgin Orbit's 747, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, took off from California around 10:30 am PT with the rocket, called LauncherOne, nestled beneath the plane's left wing. The aircraft flew out over the Pacific Ocean before the rocket was released, freeing LauncherOne and allowing it to power up its rocket motor and propel itself to more than 17,000 miles per hour, fast enough to begin orbiting the Earth.
"In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo," the company posted on its Twitter account.
The rocket flew a group of tiny satellites on behalf of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa, program, which allows high school and college students to design and assemble small satellites that NASA then pays to launch into space. The nine small satellites that Virgin Orbit flew on Sunday included temperature-monitoring satellite from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a satellite that will study how tiny particles collide in space from the University of Central Florida, and an experimental radiation-detection satellite from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
About four hours after takeoff on Saturday, Virgin Orbit confirmed in a tweet that all the satellites were "successfully deployed into our target orbit."
The successful mission makes Virgin Orbit only the third so-called "New Space" company — startups hoping to overhaul the traditional industry with innovative technologies — to reach orbit, after SpaceX and Rocket Lab. The success also paves the way for Virgin Orbit to begin launching satellites for a host of customers that it already has lined up, including NASA, the military and private-sector companies that use satellites for commercial purposes.
Virgin Orbit spun off from Virgin Galactic, a company focused on suborbital human spaceflight, in 2017. Virgin Orbit conducted several "drop tests" of its LauncherOne rocket, which involved flying the vehicle out over the Pacific and letting it plunge into the ocean to vet the 747's release mechanism.
Virgin Orbit's first attempt to put a rocket in orbit came last May, when LauncherOne malfunctioned shortly after release and the flight was aborted. That failure wasn't unexpected.
"Launching from the Earth to space is mind-bogglingly difficult," the company said after the 2020 launch attempt.
Virgin Orbit had expected to try a second orbital launch attempt in late 2020, but the company was forced to postpone after "a few" of its employees tested positive for Covid-19, according to an email from the company. That left many employees potentially exposed to the virus and under preventative quarantine, the company said.
"We're grateful and fortunate that most of our teammates have since cleared their preventative quarantines, allowing us to proceed with pre-launch operations," the company said on December 31, "albeit with even more extreme measures in place to protect the health and safety of our team."
Virgin Orbit, like other space technology companies in the United States, is permitted to continue operations throughout the pandemic because the government deemed the space sector part of the country's "critical infrastructure" in March. As one industry group argued, the sector's commercial activity is also intertwined with crucial US national security projects and NASA programs.