Sir Richard Branson’s satellite launching company Virgin Orbit has successfully completed its first mission delivering NASA satellites into space.
The payload of 10 CubeSats was brought to low Earth orbit on Sunday by the company’s air-launched rocket, carried to a height of about 6.8 miles (11km) by a modified Boeing 747-400.
At that altitude the Launcher One rocket detached from beneath the left wing of the plane, dropping for a few moments towards the ocean before its engine ignited – thrusting the vehicle towards orbit.
“Looks like the blue skies went to black!” We are overjoyed to share this new video of our Launch Demo 2 flight. The adrenaline is still flowing after we aced this flight and delivered satellites for nine different @NASA and university teams exactly to their target orbit. pic.twitter.com/nVX21hXywi
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021
The mission launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, with the drop zone taking place over the Pacific Ocean – and made LauncherOne the first liquid-fuelled and horizontally launched spacecraft to ever reach orbit.
The small satellites were deployed into low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 500km, prompting Virgin Orbit’s chief executive Dan Hart to declare: “A new gateway to space has just sprung open.”
Mr Hart praised the company’s staff, adding: “That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity.”
Secretary of State for Businessm Kwasi Kwarteng congratulated the company on the launch, saying: “The same tech will be used to enable horizontal small satellite launches from Spaceport Cornwall – a boost for jobs and the UK’s space sector.”
It follows an aborted landmark test of sister company Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane in December, despite everything getting the all-clear a minute before launch.
Although the spaceplane was successfully carried to an altitude of about 9.4 miles (15km) it did not decouple from its mother ship as planned.
Virgin Galactic ultimately aims to be operating space tourism flights from next year, and already has more than 600 customers for the $250,000 (£189,000) seats – including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.