First night launch of Virgin Orbit a big success

Virgin Orbit launched a rocket carrying seven satellites from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port on Saturday, marking the small satellite launcher’s first successful night mission. The satellites were deployed to low Earth orbit using the company’s Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, dubbed Cosmic Girl, which carries the LauncherOne rocket beneath one of its wings.

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The mission was called Straight Up, after a 1988 Paula Abdul song, and it launched seven research satellites as part of NASA’s Space Test Program. The way Virgin Orbit launches its rockets is different to others – it propelled the satellites into space by having Cosmic Girl carry the LauncherOne rocket 35,000 feet above the ground, giving it a head start before the rocket detaches and launches its payload into orbit.

It launched the satellites several days after the initial launch was planned, due to the rocket propellant temperature being “slightly out of bounds.” All variables need to be completely under control to undertake such a mission.

Virgin Orbit is relatively new to the private satellite launch game. It has only made four successful launches thus far, with the first attempt in May 2020 ending in failure. It completed two successful launches in 2021 and this is now the second successful launch in 2022, as well as the first at night.

Virgin Orbit is owned by the British billionaire Richard Branson, and isn’t to be confused with Virgin Galactic, the company’s separate branch for commercial spaceflight. It has launched all of its missions from California until now, but is planning to launch from Cornwall, England in the future as well.

Commercialised spaceflight and private hardware launches are becoming commonplace. It is no longer simply the domain of governments and space programs.