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Virgin Orbit suddenly has a viable rocket, so what comes next?

Cosmic Girl takes off with the LauncherOne vehicle on Wednesday.
Enlarge / Cosmic Girl takes off with the LauncherOne vehicle on Wednesday.

Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit demonstrated on Wednesday morning that its first spaceflight in January was no fluke.

The company’s Cosmic Girl aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port about an hour after sunrise Wednesday and flew about 200 km off the California coast, southwest of Los Angeles. The 747 carrier aircraft then dropped the LauncherOne rocket, which proceeded to ignite, reorient itself upward, and blast into orbit. Eventually, the rocket deployed seven small satellites into an orbit about 500 km above the planet.

This was Virgin Orbit’s third launch in about 13 months. The rocket’s first test flight failed in late May 2020, several seconds after ignition, due to a break in a liquid-oxygen line. But the second test flight this past January was successful, resulting in the deployment of 10 CubeSats for NASA. Now, the rocket has succeeded again. Suddenly, Virgin Orbit finds itself with a viable rocket.

“A lot of potential customers have been watching what we’ve been up to, but they really want you to fly before they believe you’re going to be there for them,” said Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, Dan Hart, in an interview with Ars. “After January, we were inundated with queries. My business development team was not getting any sleep at all. Now, I’m looking at my emails and texts piling up, so I kind of anticipate that we’re going to get more of that. We’re in a different world [from] where we were six months ago.”

Virgin Orbit has pulled off a remarkable engineering feat. Dropping, igniting, and then steering a liquid-fueled rocket from an aircraft is an insanely difficult challenge. Although Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket is also dropped from an airplane, it uses a simpler solid-fuel design, which also has less flexibility during flight.

Now, Virgin Orbit must transition from development into operations. This is no easy feat—both Elon Musk, of SpaceX, and Peter Beck, of Rocket Lab, have spoken about the difficulty of moving from building a single rocket to creating an assembly line to build them at scale.

Hart said Virgin Orbit is well positioned for this, however. The company, founded nearly a decade ago by British billionaire Richard Branson, already has five rockets in production at its Long Beach factory and has capacity there to build as many as 20 boosters a year. This is because of investments made in LauncherOne before it ever had any success.

Getting a head start

“We got a wonderful head start,” Hart said. “I have to hand it to Richard Branson, and Virgin Group, because they leaned forward with us. We had a technology that wasn’t yet proven, but they allowed us to build up a capability. Everyone was excited enough to lean forward, and now it’s paying off for us.”

But this preparedness has come at a cost. Branson has acknowledged that he and others have invested about $1 billion in Virgin Orbit to date, a very large sum for a relatively small rocket. LauncherOne has the capacity to send about one-half of a metric ton into low Earth orbit.

From its founding in 2002 to its first launch attempt in May 2006, SpaceX spent about $100 million developing the Falcon 1 rocket, which had a comparable lift capacity to LauncherOne. Likewise, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said his company spent nearly $100 million getting its Electron rocket into space. Astra has spent about the same amount on its Rocket 3.0 vehicle, which reached space late in 2020. These two rockets are smaller and slightly less capable than LauncherOne.

So how can LauncherOne recoup its costs when its missions have a base price of $12 to $15 million per launch? Hart said the air-launched rocket offers unique capabilities. Most notably, the rocket can be “launched” from a runway anywhere in the world, with mobile ground support equipment. Virgin Orbit is already planning launches from Guam and Cornwall, England, and has had discussions with locations in Japan, Brazil, and elsewhere.

Some of these countries do not have their own national launch capability, which Virgin Orbit could fulfill. Toward that end, Hart said the company is planning to modify additional 747 airplanes to deploy around the world. “The answer is an emphatic yes, we do anticipate additional aircraft, and perhaps some additional sets of portable ground equipment that we can package into those aircraft and fly wherever we want to take off,” he said. “Some of that will start to get going as early as next year.”

Hart also said the company is working on potentially making a more powerful upper stage to increase LauncherOne’s performance and in-space capabilities, and other concepts to deliver larger payloads into space. Moreover, he said, there are plans to move into “adjacencies” to launch and create a full-fledged “space company.” He declined to speak about those plans on Wednesday afternoon.

What seems clear is that Hart and his engineers feel empowered after two successes. “It gives the team confidence to go ahead and take on bodacious challenges,” he said. “Because they know they can do it.”

Virgin Orbit plans one more launch this fall, Hart said, before doubling its cadence to six missions in 2022. By 2023, Hart said, LauncherOne should be ready for more than a dozen missions. He has sold many of these launches already, he said. The company presently has more than a dozen launches on contract. The remaining flight for 2021 is sold, the manifest for 2022 is nearly fully booked with only a few remaining rideshare opportunities. Some launches are already sold for 2023 as well.

Now, Virgin Orbit and its customers can feel confident about making good on those contracts.

Listing image by Virgin Orbit

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