Virgin Orbit 747 Flies the Racetrack Over the Pacific Ocean

Credit: FlightAware

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A gloomy Sunday in Mojave didn’t stop Virgin Orbit from getting in some practice for the upcoming second flight test of its LauncherOne rocket.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 conducted a nearly three-hour long practice flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

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Virgin Orbit to Take Equity Stake in Struggling Sky & Space Global

Cosmic Girl performs a pitch up maneuver during a flight test on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit launch company will acquire an equity stake in Sky and Space Global (SAS) and sign new strategic launch services and mutual reseller agreements with the struggling communications satellite company.

SAS announced on Oct. 28 that Virgin Orbit would take no less than a 14.7% stake in the company by purchasing shares at a price of A$.020 (US$0.14) each.

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Video Update From Virgin Orbit

Video Caption: Our team has really been on their A-game, putting in an incredible amount of work to move quickly and efficiently through the biggest milestones on the path to our second launch demonstration. Hear directly from some of our technical leaders on how we’ve matured this year, and what exactly we’ve been up to since our last flight with LauncherOne!

You can also check out our blog for the latest recap: https://virg.in/aJY

Virgin Orbit has Raised $1 Billion, Needs $200 Million More

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit satellite launch company needs another $200 million in investment after having already raised $1 billion.

So said the British billionaire during The Wall Street Journal’s recent Tech Live conference. The amount raised is considerably larger than a previous estimate of $700 million.

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Virgin Galactic Pivots High-speed Aircraft Program in a Crowded Field

Credit: Douglas Messier

Virgin Galactic’s record of delays and broken promises raises doubts about its ambitious supersonic aircraft project as company founder Richard Branson fights to save his struggling empire in the midst of a global pandemic.

Updated on 10/27/20 at 12:39 p.m. PDT to include spending comparison of Virgin Orbit to Rocket Lab.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s dream of a suborbital Virgin Galactic vehicle zipping passengers between distant cities at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (6,174 km/h, 3,836 mph) is dead. At least for now.

In August, the space tourism company he founded pivoted to a slower supersonic Mach 3 (3,704 km/h, 2,302 mph) business jet. Virgin Galactic unveiled a mission concept for an aircraft that would carry 9-19 passengers at a cruising altitude of 60,000 ft (18,288 m).

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Chinese Kuaizhou 1A Rocket Fails After Launch

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A Kuaizhou 1A rocket failed to orbit the Jilin-1 Gaofen 02C optical remote-sensing satellite after liftoff from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Saturday afternoon.

The official Xinhua news agency attributed the failure to the “abnormal performance” of the launch vehicle. An investigation has commenced.

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is Seeking Investors

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is look for investors. The company posted the following notice on its website:

Virgin Orbit LLC, (together with its subsidiaries and affiliates, the “Company”), is exploring a possible transaction and has retained LionTree Advisors LLC (“LionTree”) and Perella Weinberg Partners LP (“PWP”) (together, the “Financial Advisors”).

The website includes a link to a password protected presentation that potential investors can review.

Virgin Orbit is developing LauncherOne, a small-satellite booster that is air launched from a modified Boeing 747 airliner.

Virgin Orbit’s first launch attempt failed in late May when the rocket’s engine stopped about five seconds after it began firing. The company is planning another launch attempt later this year.

The travel-heavy Virgin Group has been struggling to fund its companies due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Propellant Line Break Caused LauncherOne Failure

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

SpaceNews reports that Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed on its maiden flight due to a break in a propellant line. CEO Dan Hart revealed the cause of the failure on Wednesday.

“We had a component break in our engine system. It was a high-pressure feed line,” he said. Liquid oxygen “stopped going into the engine and our flight was terminated.”

The company has performed an investigation and identified what needs to be fixed in the engine to strengthen the components that failed. A second LauncherOne rocket is in final integration right now and will be leaving the factory in the next few weeks while modifications to the engine continue. “We’ll be targeting our next flight before the end of the year,” Hart said.

LauncherOne fired for about four seconds before the engine shut down. The rocket had been dropped from a modified Boeing 747 jetliner.

Military Smallsat Launch Contracts Withdrawn, Future Remains Uncertain

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

Easy come, uneasy go.

Last month, the Department of Defense announced it would award two rideshare launch contracts apiece to Aevum, Astra, Rocket Lab, Space Vector, X-BOW and Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space.

Earlier this month, however, the contract awards were withdrawn so the $116 million in funding could be used for other priorities. The money came from the Defense Production Act, which is designed to help companies struggling financially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

C4ISRnet quotes Will Roper, Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, as saying the contracts could be awarded again.

“My hope is that whenever there’s new [Defense Production Act] Title 3 funding or when resource frees up due to other efforts not executing as planned, that those [contracts] are the first to go back into the hopper,” Roper told reporters Tuesday.

“If I were asked today to put in one new Title 3 initiative, it’s small launch because I think it’s going to be an amazing industry base for this country, and if properly influenced, my military mission can be highly disruptive in future war fighting, especially if satellites can be put up in a very responsive way that changes the calculus for holding space assets at risk.”

Of the six companies, only Rocket Lab has launched satellites into orbit. Astra has failed in several launch attempts. The maiden flight of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed in late May.

Aevum, Space Vector and X-BOW have not made any orbital launch attempts.

SMC Announces Plan to Award Contracts for 12 Rideshare Launches to 6 Companies

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

In an effort to support its industrial based during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has announced its intention to award 12 small satellite rideshare launches to six companies.

The awards will be made to:

  • Aevum
  • Astra
  • Rocket Lab USA
  • Space Vector
  • VOX Space
  • X-Bow.
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Video of Virgin Orbit LauncherOne’s Abbreviated Flight

Nine seconds.

That’s how long the flight of LauncherOne lasted from being dropped from the Boeing 747 to its engine crapping out.

Virgin Orbit explained on its website:

For about 9 seconds after drop, the flight went perfectly. Through some of the most challenging portions of our flight — release, the controlled drop, the rocket’s ignition sequence, and the initial portion of guided, powered flight — every part of our system did exactly as we designed it to do. We have solid data from hundreds of channels and sensors — and in looking at those, we see performance that is well-matched to our predictions and to the extensive data we have from our models and ground tests. This means that we have proved out via flight the foundational principles of our air-launch operations, which is the key thing that separates us from our peers in the industry.

About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission. We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we’ve already begun. With the engine extinguished, the vehicle was no longer able to maintain controlled flight — but the rocket did not explode. It stayed within the predicted downrange corridors of our projections and our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license as the vehicle fell to the ocean, posing no risk to public safety, no danger our aircrew or aircraft, and no significant environmental impact.

There’s more on the website about what the company achieved despite the failure on Monday. There’s lots of data to go over before the next launch attempt.

Virgin Orbit Press Release on LauncherOne Failure

LauncherOne operated in powered flight for only seconds before an anomaly shut it down after being dropped from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747. (Credit; Virgin Orbit)

Mojave, Calif., May 25, 2020 (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Orbit, the California-based satellite launch company, conducted a launch demonstration of its innovative air-launched rocket today in the skies over the Pacific Ocean just off the California coast. The company successfully completed all of its pre-launch procedures, the captive carry flight out to the drop site, clean telemetry lock from multiple dishes, a smooth pass through the racetrack, terminal count, and a clean release. After being released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lighted its booster engine on cue — the first time the company had attempted an in-air ignition. An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight, and the mission safely terminated. The carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl and all of its crew landed safely at Mojave Air and Space Port, concluding the mission.

“Our team performed their prelaunch and flight operations with incredible skill today. Test flights are instrumented to yield data and we now have a treasure trove of that. We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today.  Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”

The company’s next rocket is in final stages of integration at its Long Beach manufacturing facility, with a half-dozen other rockets for subsequent missions not far behind. Virgin Orbit’s decision to begin production of multiple rockets well in advance of this test flight will enable the team to progress to the next attempt at a significantly faster pace, shortly after making any necessary modifications to the launch system.

Video of Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 Takeoff & Landing

Video Caption: Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port on May 25 with a fully fueled LauncherOne booster under its left wing. The launch over the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands failed. The aircraft and crew returned safely to Mojave.

Videographer: Kenneth Brown