The space company Virgin Orbit of the British billionaire Richard Branson failed on Monday in its first attempt to launch a rocket from a plane at 10,000 meters altitude.
The California-based satellite launch company tried a proper launch demo to demonstrate how, in the future, it will be possible to send small satellites into orbit, without too many difficulties. On this test flight, the rocket was projected to launch into Earth orbit after taking off from the plane carrying it, but there was a failure.
The mission was canceled shortly after the rocket was released. Nobody was injured in the test. The carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl and all of its crew landed safely at Mojave Air and Space Port, concluding the mission.
“Test flights are instrumented to yield data, and we now have a treasure trove of that. We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”
This was the first attempt to put a rocket into orbit after six years of development. The young space company, founded in 2012, seeks to offer a flexible and fast launch service to small satellite operators (300 to 500 kilos), a rapidly growing market. The Virgin Orbit rocket, a 21-meter-long machine called the LauncherOne, does not launch upright from the ground, but under the wing of the Boeing 747, which brings the rocket to a height of around 10,600 meters.
When the operation reaches the required height, the plane releases the rocket, which propels itself by starting its own engine, and goes up to Earth’s orbit to drop its cargo in space. Launching a rocket from an aircraft allows more flexibility than a vertical takeoff because theoretically, companies only need a runway instead of having a space launch pad.
Virgin Orbit is associated with Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic, which is also working together with NASA to develop supersonic jets. This company aims to provide space flights for customers. Virgin Galactic is in tough competition with rivals like Blue Origin by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos or SpaceX by Tesla boss Elon Musk, who also wants to take tourists to space.