Virgin Orbit aims to launch 1st spaceflight Jan. 10

Virgin Orbit's carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, hauls the company's LauncherOne rocket aloft on the Launch Demo mission on May 25, 2020. LauncherOne did not reach orbit on the flight.
Virgin Orbit's carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, hauls the company's LauncherOne rocket aloft on the Launch Demo mission on May 25, 2020. LauncherOne did not reach orbit on the flight. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit via Twitter)

Update for Jan. 8: Virgin Orbit has rescheduled this launch for Wednesday (Jan. 13), during a window that lasts from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST (1500 to 1800 GMT).

Virgin Orbit will reach the final frontier for the first time this weekend, if all goes according to plan.

The company is targeting Sunday (Jan. 10) for Launch Demo 2, its second attempt to send its LauncherOne rocket to space. 

"Our team is hitting the ground running in 2021! The window for our Launch Demo 2 mission opens this Sunday, January 10th, with opportunities to launch throughout January," Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, said via Twitter on Tuesday (Jan. 5).

In photos: Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions

Launch Demo 2 will lift off from Mojave Air and Space Port in southeastern California. The window on Sunday runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. EST (1800 to 2200 GMT; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time in California), company representatives said.

Virgin Orbit has developed an air-launch system that can loft satellites weighing up to 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms). That system consists of a modified Boeing 747 carrier plane, known as Cosmic Girl, and the two-stage, 70-foot-long (21 meters) LauncherOne rocket.

Cosmic Girl takes off from a runway with LauncherOne under one wing and drops the rocket at an altitude of about 35,00 feet (10,700 m). LauncherOne then makes its own way to orbit. This air-launch strategy — which is similar to the one employed by SpaceShipTwo, the passenger space plane flown by Virgin Orbit sister company Virgin Galactic — offers improved flexibility and responsiveness compared with standard vertical-launch rockets, Virgin Orbit representatives have said.

As its name indicates, Launch Demo 2 will be Virgin Orbit's second crack at reaching space. During the first try, in May of last year, LauncherOne successfully separated from Cosmic Girl and fired up its first-stage engine. But a propellant line ruptured shortly after the first-stage burn began, and the flight was terminated. 

That May mission didn't carry any operational satellites, but Launch Demo 2 will: LauncherOne will be topped with 10 small cubesats that are flying via NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program

Launch Demo 2 was originally supposed to launch on either Dec. 19 or Dec. 20. However, the surging COVID-19 pandemic scuttled that plan; Virgin Orbit halted pre-launch preparations last month for safety's sake, ultimately rescheduling the test flight for this weekend.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.