Virgin Orbit Test Flight Pushes the Company Forward on its Way to Space

3rd Jun 2021

At the beginning of this year, the American company performed a successful Virgin Orbit test flight of its LauncherOne rocket, deploying 10 CubeSats into orbit. An entire Virgin Orbit flight test series preceded this milestone, and not every LauncherOne test flight was successful.

From engine tests to Virgin Orbit test flight

The two-stage LauncherOne rocket is designed to carry up to 300 kg of payload into space. Its main feature is the unique air-launch technology. Instead of the ground, it launches from the air, while a heavy aircraft serves as the rocket launchpad. The rocket separates from the wing of the aircraft at an altitude of around 35,000 feet, turns on its own engines, and flies to the calculated orbit.

Air-launch technology has some advantages over the traditional ground launch. First, a heavy aircraft can take off from almost any major airfield. Second, during the flight one can select the exact launch location and follow the best trajectory to reach the required orbit. And third, air launches do not depend on weather, which means that their schedule is rarely compromised.

Until 2017, Virgin Galactic was in charge of LauncherOne development, but after, this task was reassigned to a separate division of the Virgin Group – Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit’s cutting-edge technology made it possible to outperform a similar air-launch system, Stargazer Pegasus XL by Northrop Grumman, in-flight characteristics and launch cost, which is three times lower with Virgin.

Cosmic Girl aircraft

Initially, LauncherOne was supposed to be paired with White Knight Two, twin-fuselage aircraft specially designed for air-launching Virgin SpaceShipTwo tourist spaceplane. However, the idea proved impossible after the company decided to increase the rocket’s SSO payload capacity from 200 to 300 kg. During the tests, it turned out that the rocket needs increased fuel tanks, which would accordingly increase its weight. It became apparent that the White Knight Two’s cargo parameters were insufficient. The aircraft was replaced by a more powerful Boeing 747-400. Richard Branson, Virgin Group owner, names this aircraft “Cosmic Girl” after a song by his favourite band Jamiroquai. Before that, the airliner belonged to Virgin Atlantic and operated on passenger flights.

Cosmic Girl was modified to carry LauncherOne under its wing (where the spare engine was mounted before modifications), while passenger compartments were converted into engineering ones. The aircraft provides power supply, gas purging, performance monitoring, and launch vehicle control.

Cosmic Girl was tested three times with a pylon – on 23rd, 25th & 27th August 2018. On 18th November 2018, the aircraft performed its first LauncherOne test flight.

Newton engines

Besides the platform itself, rocket launchers are also important because they allow deploying payloads to LEO and SSO up to 500 km high.

Initially, the first stage was supposed to be powered by a Darpa Newton One engine with 211 kN thrust, and the second stage – by a Newton Two engine with 16kN thrust. However, after deciding to increase LauncherOne payload capacity in 2015, the company revised this idea. More powerful pump-fed engines, operating on kerosene-liquid oxygen fuel, were installed in the first and second stages – Newton Three with 327 kN thrust and Newton Four with 22 kN thrust. The liquid oxygen tanks were insulated with spray foam to minimize oxidant evaporation during the in-flight phase.

First commercial launches

On 25th May 2020, Cosmic Girl took to the skies and successfully released LauncherOne, but the rocket did not reach space due to a break in the fuel supply line in the first stage engine. This LauncherOne test flight lasted only a few seconds, after which the rocket was lost.

The second Virgin Orbit flight test took place on 17th January 2021, and was a complete success. Both engines, Newton Three and Newton Four, worked normally, and the rocket could deliver the payload to orbit. The Newton Four engine fired twice. The first ignition during the second Virgin Orbit flight test occurred when putting the second stage with satellites into a transfer orbit and the second one when setting the load to circular motion in orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s third mission, dubbed “Tubular Bells, Part One,” is set to take place in June. The company has already announced the rocket’s full readiness and its upcoming shipment to the Mojave test site in California for prelaunch preparation.

As part of the mission, Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne will send rideshare for three customers to a 500 km circular orbit with an inclination of 60 degrees. So, each Virgin Orbit test flight is taking the company closer to the stars.

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