A Virgin Orbit rocket released from a fighter jet flying off the coast of California launched seven small satellites into space Thursday as the company kicked off a year in which it plans to ramp up the pace of launches, including two from Britain.
Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 took off from Mojave Air & Space Port in the Southern California desert, flew over the Pacific Ocean and dropped the LauncherOne rocket from its left wing.
The 70-foot-long (21.3 meters) booster ignited at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and shot skyward. The company later confirmed that all satellites had been successfully placed in orbit.
“Another fantastic day for the Virgin Orbit team and a big step forward for our customers,” the company tweeted.
And there we have it, folks! We just heard from Mission Control that NewtonThree has successfully re-ignited and placed all customer spacecraft in their target orbit. Another fantastic day for the Virgin Orbit team and a big step forward for our customers.
— Virgin Orbit (@VirginOrbit) January 13, 2022
The payload included satellites for the US Department of Defense, the Polish company SatRevolution and the international company Spire Global.
It was Virgin Orbit’s third launch of satellites for customers. Two previous launches put multiple satellites into orbit in January and June 2021. The company’s first launch, a demonstration flight, failed in May 2020.
Virgin Orbit, founded in 2017 by British billionaire Richard Branson, went public last month. The company focuses on the market for launching small satellites. It touts the mobility of its air launch system compared to the limitations of fixed launch sites.
“The great thing about using a 747 is that we can put them into orbit anywhere in the world,” Branson said from the British Virgin Islands during the company’s launch webcast.
“There are only a few countries in the world that can send satellites to space from their own countries and now 480 countries can use Virgin Orbit,” he said. “All you have to do is call us.”
The company plans six launches this year, including two for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, which will originate from Cornwall in the south west of England. RAF test pilot Mathew “Stanny” Stannard flew the 747 from the main pilot seat on Thursday.
“This is just going to be a great year for us,” Chief Operating Officer Tony Gingiss said in a preflight briefing this week.
Gingiss said flight-over-flight is constantly being improved.
“I think we’re not only seeing the kind of accuracy that we expect, but we’re really getting a lot of confidence in our processes,” he said.
Thursday’s mission was dubbed “Above the Clouds,” a title taken from a song on hip-hop duo Gang Starr’s album “Moment of Truth,” released by Virgin Records in 1998.
Branson noted during his interview that his family contracted COVID-19 over Christmas.
“Luckily we got vaccinated and boosted and that’s why none of us got it bad,” he said.
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