First Look: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne Rocket

16th Apr 2021
Virgin Orbit LauncherOne

Over the past few years, several new private space companies have spurred the global space industry’s development, and Virgin Orbit, with its LauncherOne rocket, played its part in this process. Now, the industry clearly moves towards creating smaller spacecraft and, as a result, reducing launch costs and increasing launch frequency.

Today, several private companies are operating in the market, and the number of successful launch providers keeps growing. Most offer lightweight rockets with traditional vertical launch technology. However, there are exceptions. One of them is Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, which launches horizontally.

What is air-launch technology?

Horizontal launch / air-launch technology is not a new concept. The military started using it back in the 1950s. Since 1990, American company, Northrop Grumman, has been successfully implementing air launches for its Pegasus vehicle. Similar technologies are also developed in Russia, China, Germany, Japan, and even Romania. However, Virgin Orbit was the first private company to commercialise this technology.

The essence of an air-launch is that the rocket is attached to a heavy aircraft wing, which raises it to an altitude of several thousand feet. At a certain point, the rocket separates from the wing, turns on its engines, and crosses the Karman line (100 km), after which space begins.

Launch from rarefied layers of the atmosphere solves plenty of rocket building aerodynamics challenges, allowing to reduce the carrier’s weight and size. It also ensures aircraft reusability and reduces the number of obligatory launch requirements, still relevant for vertical launchers (launch platform, infrastructure, equipment, special personnel, etc.)

What is LauncherOne?

Virgin Orbit is based in the USA but has a British presence, as it is owned by Richard Branson, a British businessman who founded the Virgin Group of companies. Previously, Virgin Orbit was a division of a space giant Virgin Galactic, but in 2017 it was spun off into a separate company. Now, Virgin Galactic’s focus is on tourist suborbital flights and Virgin Orbit’s – on payload delivery to Earth orbits.

After inheriting a large modified transport Boeing 747-400 from Virgin Atlantic, the company moved on to developing a light rocket that could deliver CubeSats and small satellites to sun-synchronous orbits, up to 500km. Branson named Boeing after his favourite band’s, Jamiroquai’s, song “Cosmic Girl.” 

To date, LauncherOne has the following features:

  • Two Stages
  • 70 feet height
  • 5’11” diameter for the first stage and 4’11” for the second stage and fairing
  • Newton3 and Newton4 engines, working on RP-1 and liquid oxygen
  • 300kg payload capacity to SSO up to 500km, 500kg — to 230km

Virgin Orbit also states the possibility of using a 3-stage modification, which will deliver cargoes up to 100, 70, and 50kg to the heliocentric orbits of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, respectively.

First LauncherOne flights

Virgin Orbit has had two 1:1 commercial launches of its LauncherOne rocket to date. The first flight ended in failure, but the second one was a success. On 25th May 2020, a few seconds after the rocket separation from Cosmic Girl, the engine caught fire due to a break in the fuel supply line, and the rocket was lost. The problem with the fuel line was solved by reinforcing the failed components, and on January 17 2021, LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats as part of NASA’s ELaNa mission.

LauncherOne may become a serious competitor to lightweight vertical launchers, as it is equally inexpensive, does not impose high requirements on launch organization, and can fly at short intervals. With additive manufacturing and a powerful technology base, Virgin Orbit is set to build and launch 24 LauncherOne rocket models a year.

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