Enlarge /. LauncherOne goes into orbit after falling from its carrier aircraft on Sunday.
On Sunday afternoon, Virgin Orbit joined the rare club of companies that privately developed a rocket and successfully put it into orbit. Additionally, the California-based company became the first company to enter orbit with a liquid-fueled rocket launched in the air with its LauncherOne missile dropped from a 747 aircraft.
"This great flight is the culmination of years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on their way into orbit," said Sir Richard Branson, founder of the company. "Virgin Orbit has achieved what many thought was impossible."
Sunday's flight, which included multiple firings of the top-stage LauncherOne engine and the successful deployment of multiple small satellites for NASA, completes an eight-year development program spanning myriad engineering challenges.
An air launch missile has several advantages over traditional ground launch boosters, including flexibility in reaching different orbits and the ability to launch in relatively bad weather. To achieve these benefits, however, Virgin Orbit needed to develop a liquid fuel rocket that could be dropped horizontally from an aircraft, its engines fired, and quickly aligned to a more vertical trajectory. (Although Orbital Sciences designed the Pegasus missile to fall off a carrier aircraft in the late 1980s, it was easier to construct with solid propellant.)
A missile dropped from an aircraft cannot ignite its engines immediately due to the proximity of the aircraft and its pilots. In the case of LauncherOne, the rocket's NewtonThree engine ignites 3.25 seconds after it is launched. The main start of the engine takes place after 5.2 seconds. During this time, the missile falls and loses the speed it gained from the aircraft at around 30,000 feet.
Because of this resistance, negative acceleration affects the booster, causing all sorts of problems for both the rocket structure and the propulsion system. One problem is that this starts pushing the liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants to the top of the tanks and the fill gas – which fills the tanks when propellant is consumed – to the engine inlet.
The ignition process itself is also a challenge in the air. On the ground, a missile usually fires its engines and the on-board computer does one final, quick check to make sure everything is in order before the missile is fired. For this reason, the take-off usually follows a few seconds after ignition. There is no margin for error with Launcher One because if it does not fire, the missile will simply fall into the ocean.
<img alt = "Image showing the LauncherOne firing after it was dropped from his Cosmic girl Planes. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/LD2-Ignition-2.jpg "width =" 2889 "height =" 1806″/>
Image shows the LauncherOne firing after it was dropped from its Cosmic Girl plane.
The company and its engineers were able to solve all of these and other problems with the design of their rocket. But it took time and a lot of money. Branson has confirmed that he and other investors have invested approximately $ 1 billion in Virgin Orbit. This is a lot of money to invest in a small satellite launcher, however innovative it may be. Ars has explored Virgin Orbit's path to profitability over the past year, and the path will not be easy.
But these are discussions for another day. On Sunday, Virgin Orbit reached orbit on its second flight with what appeared to be a flawless mission. Few companies have done this with privately developed vehicles – very few outside of Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, and Rocket Lab. It was a good day.