In March 2017, Virgin Galactic, a private space tourism company owned by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, announced the spinoff of a separate firm called Virgin Orbit. The new venture is dedicated to launching small satellites, including cubesats.
Cubesats are tiny but mighty machines, only 4 inches (10 centimeters) to a side. They take advantage of the miniaturization of electronics in recent years to pack sophisticated hardware within their minuscule frames. Cubesats are increasingly popular with businesses and researchers performing space-based missions because they are highly capable but cheap to manufacture and launch.
“If you look at market projections, they are looking at literally thousands of satellites to be launched over the next five years,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told Space.com in 2017. Small satellites currently have to piggyback on larger missions, squeezing into any extra space available in their launch vehicles. Virgin Orbit is building and testing a rocket dedicated to carrying such machines to orbit.
The company has developed a two-stage rocket named LauncherOne that is approximately 70 feet (21 meters) long and weighs around 57,000 lbs. (25,800 kilograms) at takeoff, according to their website.
LauncherOne can deliver between 660 and 1,100 lbs. (300 and 500 kg) to orbit. Since cubesats start at around 3 lbs. (1.33 kg), this means the vehicle is capable of launching hundreds of satellites at once. The rocket does so by being carried up into the sky underneath a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl. The jet then releases the rocket at 35,000 feet (10,600 meters), and at this point the rocket ignites its engines and shoots off into space. The company expects to be able to place small satellites in a wide variety of low Earth orbits. [Gallery: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne Rocket for Satellite Missions]
In October 2018, LauncherOne was successfully mated to Cosmic Girl for the first time. This was the initial step of a testing process for preparing the vehicle to carry customer payloads. Just a month later, in November 2018, Cosmic Girl successfully carried LauncherOne into the air. The next step is to conduct drop tests, during which Virgin Orbit engineers can study the rocket-release mechanism and observe the launch vehicle’s flight through Earth’s atmosphere, Virgin Orbit representatives have said.
Virgin CEO Branson expects that LauncherOne could be ready to reach orbit early in 2019, according to his October 2018 blog post. He wrote that the main advantage of this launch strategy is flexibility. Cosmic Girl “can fly thousands of miles in any direction at 24 hours’ notice to deliver to the right orbit. Currently, people have to wait between 18 and 24 months for manufacturing and a ground launch.”
Virgin Orbit aims to build 24 new rockets annually from its production center in Long Beach, California, according to the company’s website. This would put the company in a good position to potentially launch some of the many thousands of cubesats expected to need rides to orbit in the next few years, as companies like SpaceX and Planet aim to create space-based networks that can provide internet access and global-imaging capabilities.