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Virgin Orbit gears up for second attempt at unique rocket launch

It may sound like a crazy idea to launch a space rocket by firing it from beneath the wing of a Boeing 747 jet plane, but that’s precisely what Virgin Orbit is planning to do.

In fact, the company has already achieved the feat — in May last year — though on that occasion the rocket failed to make it into orbit as planned.

Since then, Virgin Orbit has been refining its systems ahead of a second attempt slated for Wednesday, January 13.

The work is part of an ongoing effort by Virgin Orbit to launch a commercial business for small-satellite launches.

Wednesday’s Launch Demo 2 test mission was supposed to take place in December 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. Now, however, Virgin Orbit is confident it has sufficient measures in place to allow it to safely proceed with the launch in a few days’ time.

“Now, with all of our major pre-launch tests complete, we’re making our way through our final reviews, checks, and readiness discussions,” the company said in a tweet, adding, “It’s a busy start to the year but we’re focused and excited to be flying to space soon!”

Now, with all of our major pre-launch tests complete, we’re making our way through our final reviews, checks, and readiness discussions.

It's a busy start to the year but we’re focused and excited to be flying to space soon!

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 5, 2021

The launch window will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. PT on January 13. The modified Boeing 747 will take off from Virgin Orbit’s base in California’s Mojave Desert before heading out over the Pacific. There it’ll ignite the 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket.

The mission won’t be livestreamed but the team has promised to tweet real-time updates during the mission.

Launch Demo 2 is particularly important as the rocket will be carrying its first-ever payload that includes a set of CubeSats for NASA.

Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to send its LauncherOne rocket into space ended seconds after launch when an anomaly occurred with the booster’s NewtonThree first-stage engine, causing an automatic shutdown. An investigation showed the failure was caused by a fuel line issue that’s since been fixed.

Despite the hiccup, the mission gave the team reams of useful data while also demonstrating the reliability of other parts of the operation.

“In our first Launch Demo, we demonstrated the entire prelaunch sequence, flyout, rocket separation and unpowered flight, engine start, and first-stage powered flight,” the company said recently, adding that the team is “fired up to build on those steps and to demonstrate the rest of the rocket system, including our upper stage. Again, we’re poised to collect terabytes of data from LauncherOne as it flies, further enhancing our knowledge and proving out our system’s capabilities.”

Virgin Orbit Origins

If Virgin Orbit manages to launch a viable commercial service in the coming years, its satellite launch system will compete with similar services offered by the likes of SpaceX and Rocket Lab, which carry out deployments via more conventional ground-based rocket launches. Virgin Orbit says its air-launch system will offer a global network of spaceports to give companies seeking to deploy small satellites more options when it comes to launching a mission.

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Trevor Mogg
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