On Sunday afternoon, Virgin Orbit joined the rare company club that specifically developed and successfully launched a rocket into orbit. Moreover, with the launch of the LauncherOne missile from the 747, the California-based company became the first to reach orbit with a liquid-fuel, air-launched missile.
“This remarkable journey is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on their way into orbit,” He said Sir Richard Branson, founder of the company. “Virgin Orbit has achieved something that many people thought was impossible.”
Sunday’s trip, which included multiple launcherOne top-stage engine launches and the successful deployment of several small NASA satellites, culminates in a nearly eight-year development program and countless technical challenges.
The air-launched missile has some advantages over traditional ground-launched boosters, most notably the flexibility to reach various orbits and the ability to take off in fairly severe weather. However, to obtain these benefits, Virgin Orbit had to design a liquid-fueled missile that could be dropped horizontally from an aircraft, igniting its engines, and quickly directing itself toward a more vertical path. (Although Orbital Sciences developed the Pegasus missile to drop from a carrier aircraft in the late 1980s, it was a more straightforward design using solid fuel.)
A missile dropped from an aircraft cannot instantly ignite its engines due to the proximity of the aircraft and its pilots. In the case of LauncherOne, the NewtonThree rocket engine ignited 3.25 seconds after it went down. The main engine starts at 5.2 seconds. During this time, the missile falls and loses the velocity it gained from the plane at about 30,000 feet.
Due to this drag, negative acceleration acts on the booster, causing all sorts of problems for both the missile’s body and its propulsion system. One problem is that this starts pushing liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants up the tanks and boys gas – which fills the tanks as the propellant is expended – toward the engine inlet.
The ignition process itself is also a limitation in air. On the ground, the missile usually ignites its engines, and the on-board computer performs a quick final check to make sure everything is in order before the missile is launched. This is why takeoff usually follows ignition for a few seconds. There is no margin for error in Launcher One, because if ignition does not occur, the rocket simply falls into the ocean.
The company and its engineers managed to overcome all of these issues and more by designing their rocket. But it took a lot of time and money. Branson admitted that he and other investors have invested about a billion dollars in Virgin Orbit, which is a lot of money to invest in a small satellite launcher, however innovative it is. Ars explored Virgin Orbit’s paths to profitability Last year the road will not be easy.
But these are discussions for another day. On Sunday, Virgin Orbit reached orbit on only its second flight, in what appeared to be a largely flawless mission. Few companies have done this with specially developed compounds – except that very few actually exist outside of Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, and Rocket Lab. It was a good day.