Just four years after its incorporation, Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit has become the newest provider for delivering space payloads. The company confirmed that it put seven satellites into their target orbits on Wednesday after carrying the rocket launcher on a modified Boeing 747's wing.
Today, space payload launches are synonymous with 1) a rocket blasting off from a dedicated launch site 2) in a mission that has been planned over years. However, Virgin Orbit changes this dynamic, offering a highly flexible horizontal launch platform at practically every major airport near you. The idea was music to the ears of companies engaged in making small satellites.
After completing its first commercial mission, Virgin Orbit has finally brought the idea to fruition.
The relatively short journey hasn't been without hiccups though. Last year, the company's debut launch was a dud, after the rocket launcher failed to reach orbit. Months later, Virgin Orbit successfully launched 10 payloads in low-earth orbit.
The company uses a modified-Boeing 747 jet named 'Cosmic Girl' to do much of the hard work. The jet carries a two-stage payload rocket, called LauncherOne, for most of its journey. Once the jet is near the target, it drops the rocket launcher, which free falls for a while before igniting and heading towards the low earth orbit.
On Wednesday, the plan worked to perfection. Around 9:50 ET, Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port, California. After flying for almost an hour, Launcher One separated from the aircraft.
Stage One of the rocket was fired, after which it separated and stage two took the payloads to their final destination. A total of seven satellites from three countries were on board the LauncherOne. Of these, four tiny satellites were part of the US Department of Defense test program, two were part of 14-satellite-constellation that Polish company, SatRevolution, wants to launch for imaging purposes, while the last was a defense satellite for The Netherlands.
The entire event was live-streamed on YouTube.
The mission is called 'Tubular Bells': Part One, after the first album that was released in 1973 by Virgin Records, Branson's first venture. Last year, his other space venture, Virgin Galactic signed an agreement with NASA to train 'private' astronauts.