General, Research, Technology

Virgin Orbit launched a rocket into space from an airplane. But why?

After several unsuccessful attempts to launch a rocket into space from an aircraft, Virgin Orbit did not give up and on January 17, 2021, it was still able to do more than just LauncherOne rocket launch from aircraft, but also with its help to orbit the Earth 10small satellites for space exploration - kubsats. The satellites were provided by NASA's Launch Service Program mission specifically for this rocket. Thus, Virgin Orbit became one of the few in the world who launched a rocket into space in such a seemingly unusual way. And how do you like that, Elon Musk?

This is the first successful rocket launch from an aircraft for Virgin Orbit.


  • 1 Launching a rocket from an airplane
  • 2 Rocket LauncherOne Launch
  • 3 Why launch a rocket from an airplane?
  • 4 Where did Virgin Orbit come from?

Rocket launch from an airplane

Virgin Orbit didn't put on a show out of thisevents, as SpaceX usually does (but in vain), so there was no live broadcast of the rocket launch. On the other hand, the company's SMMs wrote quite emotionally on its Twitter about each stage of the flight - from the successful separation from the aircraft and starting the engines to entering orbit and launching satellites.

We heard that we covered 50 miles for the first time and are still in flight. Just wow! WELCOME TO SPACE, LAUNCHERONE!

The flight proceeded as follows. For the launch, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft was used, which Virgin Orbit affectionately named Cosmic girl... Only this is not an ordinary modification and not evena simple cargo, but a specially designed version of this aircraft for launching a rocket. Special mounts were installed under its wings to hold the rocket, which can release it at any time.

Cosmic Girl took off with a rocket under her wing

The plane took off from an airfield in the Mojave Desert andheaded for the Pacific Ocean. Having flown 150 kilometers over the ocean in 1 hour and 7 minutes, the aircraft sharply raised its nose, banked to the right to raise the left wing, under which the LauncherOne rocket was fixed, and dropped it over the ocean. 3 seconds after the reset (not immediately, otherwise there is a risk of damaging the aircraft) the first stage engine was launched, and LauncherOne rushed into space.

Cosmic Girl Flight Plan and Rocket Drop Location

Having successfully dropped the rocket, the plane made a circle and headed back to the airfield. The launch could be seen even from a nearby beach.

@Virgin_Orbit launch from the beach

- Erik Franks (@erikjfranks) January 17, 2021

</ p>

Half an hour after that, the second stage came outthe target orbit, the engine of the upper stage (NewtonFour) shut down according to plan and had to restart, with which difficulties arose. At the same time, a payload detachment command was given. The engine failed to start again, but the rocket nevertheless launched 10 cubesats into space.

LauncherOne rocket launch

Virgin Orbit tried several times to launch a rocket into space from an airplane, but failed each time. In 2019, the rocket did not turn on the engines and just fell into Air Force territoryUSA. The company later said that the fall was planned in advance - the engineers wanted to find out what happens to the plane and the rocket after the separation.

However, in May of last year 2020, the new launch did indeed fail. The rocket, which was supposed to go straight from the Boeing 747 into space, fell into the Pacific Ocean.

The engine started that time, but due to"Unforeseen problems" that the company's engineers kept silent about, LauncherOne crashed. This turned out to be a serious loss for the company, since the second stage of the rocket had many instruments and sensors that were supposed to help study its behavior during flight.

And so, the beginning of 2021 nevertheless brought VirginOrbit luck - LauncherOne saw space for the first time and even put a payload into orbit. Among the cubesats were the following satellites provided by NASA and American universities:

  • CACTUS-1 - for tracking space debris;
  • CAPE-3 and MiTEE - satellites of the curriculum of American universities;
  • EXOCUBE-3 - to study the exosphere of the Earth;
  • Two PICS satellites;
  • PolarCube radiometer;
  • Q-PACE - for conducting experiments in low gravity conditions;
  • RadFXSat-2 - for space observations;
  • TechEdSat-7 is a NASA mission cubesat.

Preparing cubsats for flight

Of course, it is too early to talk about human space flights on Virgin Orbit rockets, but SpaceX also started with the launch of satellites in its time. And now he is preparing a mission to Mars with might and main.

You will be interested: The new Virgin Galactic spacecraft carried out its first manned rocket flight

Why launch a rocket from an airplane?

There are actually several reasons.First, it is economically viable - no need to build a spaceport to launch a rocket. Any airfield with a sufficient runway length will do, since Virgin Orbit uses a modification of the Boeing 747-400, and this model is used by airlines around the world. Secondly, the launch from an altitude allows the rocket to pass the first 10 kilometers of altitude with the highest atmospheric density, that is, the plane, as it were, “helps” it to enter orbit.

A rocket has been launched this way for 25 years. Pegasus XL from the Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer.

At the same time, if we compare the Virgin Orbit approachand SpaceX, Elon Musk's company still acts more rationally. While Falcon rockets require spaceports, they can be reused, while LauncherOne is a "disposable" rocket. Plus, LauncherOne's payload is slightly less than the Falcon 9. Virgin Orbit hasn't disclosed the launch cost, and if it's not too different from SpaceX, there's no point in launching the rocket from an airplane. Perhaps for the sake of a spectacular video.

Cosmic Girl test flight in 2019

Where did Virgin Orbit come from?

Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic foundedone of the richest men in Britain, Richard Branson. During his life, the entrepreneur has founded more than 400 companies providing a variety of services. Now his main passion is space missions. Space flights, which he wants to conduct for everyone (even for himself), will cost from 250 thousand dollars. Interestingly, Branson will also launch people on a rocket from an airplane?