Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit has reached space with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering ten NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket’s first test launch last year. The Long Beach, California-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl some 35,000 feet over the Pacific before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, successfully placed 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA, the company said on Twitter. The rocket launcher was tailored for carrying small satellites to space, aimed to place 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA roughly two hours into the mission, though Virgin Orbit had not confirmed whether they were deployed as planned.
Virgin executives say high-altitude launches allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently and also minimize weather-related cancellations compared to more traditional rockets launched vertically from a ground pad. Virgin Orbit’s government services subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the system to the US military, with a first mission slated for October under a USD 35 million US Space Force contract for three missions.