Less than eight months after its maiden mission suffered a premature engine shutdown, Virgin Orbit has triumphantly flown its LauncherOne rocket to space for the very first time. The air-launched booster was laden with a battery of nine CubeSats for NASA experimenters and eight academic institutions spanning the United States from Tennessee to California, from Florida to Colorado and from Maryland to Utah.
“Payloads successfully deployed into our target orbit,” tweeted Virgin Orbit. “We are so, so proud to say that LauncherOne has now completed its first mission to space.”
The two-stage LauncherOne vehicle—which stands 70 feet (21 meters) tall and can insert payloads weighing up to 660 pounds (300 kg) into a 310-mile-high (500 km) orbit—was air-launched over the Pacific Ocean from beneath the port-side wing of Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, nicknamed “Cosmic Girl”. Today’s success makes LauncherOne only the second successful demonstration of an Air Launch to Orbit (ALTO) system.
“From a technical perspective, air launch has a lot of benefits,” said Virgin Orbit’s director of mission management Jeff Kwong. “We can target any orbit with our mobile launch system and our aircraft-like operations, small launch support footprint and trailerized equipment can be ready to support launches in a short timeframe. This is ideal for responsive launch, a capability that many customers have been and will continue to be interested in.”
Laden with nine CubeSat payloads, today’s flight was the 20th mission in NASA’s Educational Launch of NanoSatellites (ELaNa-20) series. Experimenters from Capital Technology University of Laurel, Md., the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Central Florida at Orlando, Vanderbilt University of Nashville, Tenn., and NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) at Moffett Field, Calif., provided a group of payloads with a wide-ranging scope of objectives.
These include tackling microscopic space debris with an aerogel capture device, forecasting space weather and measuring atomic and ionic substances in Earth’s exosphere. A smallsat-tether system will be deployed for electrodynamic research and controllability, two satellites will demonstrate the inspection, maintenance and assembly of other spacecraft and a two-way amateur radio communications system will be evaluated. One payload will trial a mechanism called “ExoBrake” to effect a rapid re-entry of a satellite after 60 days in orbit.
“NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) has been selecting spacecraft from academic, non-profits and government entities for 11 years,” said Scott Higginbotham, a mission manager for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
“What we’re looking for is spacecraft that meet NASA’s strategic objectives in science, technology development and education. If an institution meets some strategic objectives of ours and commits to building the satellite, we’ll commit to launching it. The educational value is huge. We’re trying to build the next generation of satellite-builders and, in the end, for some of these schools, it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination. The benefit students get just from building the satellite—designing it, fabricating it, testing it—gives them a lot of experience in different aspects of project management and engineering.”
But today’s flight of only the second LauncherOne mission comes after a 2020 that was fraught with challenge. Last 25 May, the first LauncherOne took to the skies from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., nestled under the port-side wing of Cosmic Girl, and was satisfactorily air-launched over the Pacific Ocean.
In doing so, the road seemed clear for LauncherOne to become only the second operational Air Launch to Orbit (ALTO) system, after Northrop Grumman Corp.’s long-serving Pegasus winged booster. Powered by a mixture of liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”), LauncherOne was expected to burn its NewtonThree first-stage engine—with a propulsive yield of 73,500 pounds (33,340 kg)—for about three minutes.
However, despite a successful release, controlled drop and ignition sequence, a malfunction occurred at nine seconds into LauncherOne’s mission, causing the engine to extinguish itself and the booster plunged safely into the waters of the Pacific. Cosmic Girl and her four-person crew landed safely back at Mojave Air and Space Port.
It subsequently became clear that a breach in the high-pressure propellant line responsible for carrying liquid oxygen to the first stage’s combustion chamber had precipitated this loss of thrust. This effectively stymied the flow of oxidizer to the NewtonThree engine. And in spite of the steady worldwide march of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Virgin Orbit engineers probed diligently through last summer to identify a forward path with an eye on their next launch. “We’ve put our hardware through a punishing barrage of tests to shake out any hidden surprises that might otherwise doom us to repeat the mishap,” it was noted in an August update.
Virgin Orbit adopted what it described as a “belt-and-suspenders” approach to the failure: “fixing the obvious issues we observed and also proactively addressing issues we didn’t observe but fall into the realm of possible contributors”. Specifically, this approach resulted in strengthening of parts of the high-pressure liquid oxygen feed system and an increase in operating margins to maximize robustness and reliability.
Last October, Virgin Orbit announced its intent to push ahead with a second LauncherOne mission—dubbed “Launch Demo-2”—before year’s end, with the hardware having already been shipped to Mojave Air and Space Port in late August. Upon arrival at its launch site, it was installed in a test stand to mimic Cosmic Girl’s port-side wing where mobile ground support trailers were connected and testing got underway, before being returned to the factory in Long Beach, Calif., for final integration. In the second week of November, the complete LauncherOne was delivered to the Mojave Air and Space Port for the final time before its long-awaited mission.
But as with so many best-laid plans of 2020, the launch slipped into the opening weeks of the New Year. On 12 January, following a satisfactory Launch Readiness Review (LRR), Virgin Orbit declared its preparedness to attempt a flight on Sunday 17th. Following a pre-flight briefing on launch morning, the process of fueling LauncherOne with its supply of liquid oxygen and RP-1 got underway about three hours before the 10:38 a.m. PST takeoff time.
“Our flight profile for this mission is identical to our first Launch Demo,” Virgin Orbit tweeted on Sunday afternoon. “Cosmic Girl is headed due southwest from Mojave to our drop point just south of the Channel Islands. Once there, we’ll enter into a loop that we call the “racetrack” as we wait for final Go/No-Gos.”
Flying Cosmic Girl out of Mojave today was Pilot-in-Charge (PIC) Kelly Latimer, joined by Todd Ericson and launch engineers Bryce Schaefer and Sarah Barnes, together with Virgin Orbit’s new chief pilot Eric Bippert. “A beautiful takeoff,” tweeted Virgin Orbit. “Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne are officially airborne for our second orbital launch demonstration.”
The aircraft and its oversized cargo entered the racetrack about a half-hour later and the flight crew pressed directly into their final checks before the Terminal Countdown Autosequence. “Emphasis on the “auto” here,” Virgin Orbit tweeted, “as once that’s triggered, LauncherOne’s computers will begin to take full control of the system before release and ignition.” The moment of truth came just before 11:39 a.m. PST. “Confirming a clean release from the aircraft and a perfectly executed ignition of our main stage engine, NewtonThree,” came the tweet.
Following the smooth air-launch, as planned, Cosmic Girl banked sharply away from the rapidly descending LauncherOne. And this time around, the powerful NewtonThree burned on time and burned satisfactorily for three perfect minutes, shutting down at T+187 seconds and separating from the stack at T+190 seconds.
“Still got a ways to go, but we just confirmed successful stage separation,” Virgin Orbit tweeted at 11:43 a.m. PST. “This is a huge milestone and the furthest our rocket has flown yet.”
With the first stage gone, the turn came for LauncherOne’s second stage, powered by a single NewtonFour engine with a thrust of about 6,000 pounds (2,700 kg). It ignited a few seconds later and burned for more than four minutes, during which time the booster’s payload fairing was jettisoned. The engine fell silent, as intended, a little over nine minutes after leaving Cosmic Girl’s clutches.
“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit,” tweeted Virgin Orbit at 11:49 a.m. PST. “Everyone on the team who is not in Mission Control right now is going absolutely bonkers. “Even the folks on comms are trying really hard not to sound too excited.”