Virgin Orbit, the commercial rocket launch company billionaire Richard Branson spun out of Virgin Galactic is set to start commercial operations as early as next year. The rapid move to market comes after the recent successful completion of a maiden test flight. The rockets that Virgin Orbit will use to launch satellites into space, setting them on orbit courses around the earth, will be launched from modified jumbo jets embellished with some of the latest technology in the world of space aeronautics.
Satellites are becoming more and more used across a range of sectors, from telecoms to data gathering and all manner of other communications-based new technologies. However, the cost of launching even a small, simple satellite into orbit has proven to be a huge bottleneck for companies in this sector. Virgin Orbit, and several other start-ups in the space (pun intended) have been focusing on innovation designed to slash those costs.
The approach Branson’s Virgin Orbit has taken is to launch smaller, cheaper rockets from a jumbo jet that is already flying at a significant altitude, rather than from the ground. Last Sunday, Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic Girl” as the adapted Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet has been dubbed, carried a 70-foot rocket high into the atmosphere under its wing. The rocket was not launched this time but the company is now confident that its first commercial launches will now take place next year.
The main aim of the maiden flight was for Virgin Orbit’s engineers and scientists to collect and analyse data on the system’s performance during take-off and landing. That has now been added to the already ‘mountains of data’ informing the company’s decisions. The next key part of the operation that data needs to be collected on is the performance of the rocket itself after it has been launched. The main saving from mid-air launches is not fuel but cutting out the expensive ground infrastructure a traditional rocket launch necessitates. Mid-air launches will also be less dependent on weather conditions. Having to cancel and reschedule a launch is also hugely expensive.
Branson’s other space-age company, Virgin Galactic, hopes to carry commercial passengers into space. However, the project has been hit by numerous delays, including the 2014 crash of the company’s VSS Enterprise ‘spaceplane’ that resulted in the death of one of its two pilots. Virgin Galactic and Orbit have also recently turned down a potential multi-billion investment from Saudi Arabia following the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist believed to have been killed in the country’s Istanbul embassy last month.