Science

Virgin Orbit rocket launches into space from a plane

Billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time on Sunday with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering 10 NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket's first test launch last year.

Cubesats carried into space from LauncherOne rocket released from beneath wing of Boeing 747

A 21-metre-long LauncherOne rocket was released from beneath the wing of a Boeing 747 carrier aircraft off the coast of Southern California on Sunday, igniting moments later and soaring toward space. (Matt Hartman/The Associated Press)

Billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time on Sunday with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering 10 NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket's first test launch last year.

The Long Beach, Calif.-based company's LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl about 10,700 metres (35,000 feet) over the Pacific at 2:39 p.m. ET, before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth's atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.

"According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!" the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, dubbed Launch Demo 2. "In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo."

Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 21-metre (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 successful test and clean payload deployment was a double win for Virgin Orbit, which last year failed its attempt to reach space when LauncherOne's main engine shut down prematurely moments after releasing from its carrier aircraft. The shortened mission generated key test data for the company, it said.

Sunday's test also thrusts Virgin Orbit into an increasingly competitive commercial space race, offering a unique "air-launch" method of sending satellites to orbit alongside rivals such as Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace, which have designed small-launch systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.

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 Orbital's government services subsidiary, VOX Space LLC, is selling launches using the system to the U.S. military, with a first mission slated for October under a $35 million U.S. Space Force contract for three missions.

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