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Virgin Orbit enters orbit on the second mission of LauncherOne

On its second flight, January 17, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket entered orbit, illustrating the air-launch system’s success after years of production. The firm’s Boeing 747 aircraft, dubbed Cosmic Girl, flew off at 1:38 p.m. Eastern from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, with the attached LauncherOne rocket. The airplane soared over the Pacific just off Southern California’s coast and launched the rocket at approximately 2:39 p.m. Eastern. The rocket fired its first-stage NewtonThree engine for 3 minutes, followed for almost 6 minutes by the stage separation and initiation of the NewtonFour engine in the second stage of the rocket.

The rocket later reignited the NewtonFour after a 46-minute coast for a 5-second burn, accompanied by payload launch in an orbit of about 500 kilometers. Still, it took Virgin Orbit over an hour to validate those final stages. “A modern gateway to space has just sprung open,” stated Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s president, and the chief executive, in a report after the launch, celebrating the “laser focus” of his business on the initiative amid technological difficulties and the current pandemic. “That commitment paid off now with a brilliantly executed flight, and we couldn’t have been happier.” In that statement, Richard Branson, who is the founder of Virgin Group, stated, “Virgin Orbit has done what many considered unlikely.”

“This incredible flight is the result of several decades of hard work and therefore will unleash an entirely new generation of inventors on the road to orbit as well.” The launch was the cornerstone of a production program dating back to July 2012, when Virgin Galactic revealed its plan to develop a small launch vehicle to supplement its suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Initially, LauncherOne was intended to be using the same SpaceShipTwo WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane. Still, later the corporation opted to buy a Boeing 747 to be used as a carrier aircraft. In the year 2017, Virgin Galactic spun out the LauncherOne project into a separate business, Virgin Orbit.

Under a deal struck in 2015 as a component of its Venture Class Launch Services initiative to support new small launch vehicle manufacturers, the client for the Launch Demo 2 mission was NASA. The NASA mission, named ELaNa 20, carried 10 cube satellites from 8 universities as well as one NASA hub. The spacecraft was designed to undertake a series of experimental missions of science and technology. Before the deployment, despite flying payloads, the Virgin Orbit stressed that the primary aim of the mission was to evaluate the vehicle. “It’s worth noting that this would be a test flight,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit president, and chief executive, told reporters in the pre-launch call.

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