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Virgin Orbit sends 7 satellites to orbit in fourth mid-air launch

Make it three in a row for Virgin Orbit.

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket lofted seven small satellites for three different customers today (Jan. 13), marking the third straight successful mission for the California-based company.

Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, lifted off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California today at 4:39 p.m. EST (2139 GMT; 1:39 p.m. local California time) with LauncherOne beneath its wing.

The plane flew southwest for about 70 minutes until it reached its designated drop zone, a patch of the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of California's Channel Islands. Cosmic Girl released LauncherOne at 5:52 p.m. EST (2252 GMT), at an altitude of roughly 35,000 feet (10,700 meters), and the two-stage rocket powered its way to orbit.

All seven payloads were successfully deployed into their planned orbit, a circular path 310 miles (500 km) above Earth, Virgin Orbit announced via Twitter at 6:53 p.m. EST (2353 GMT).

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

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Series of successes

Virgin Orbit plans to carve out a sizable share of the small-satellite market with Cosmic Girl and the 70-foot-long (21 m) LauncherOne, which is capable of delivering 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) to orbit on each mission. 

Virgin Orbit cites its air-launch strategy — which it shares with space tourism outfit Virgin Galactic, also part of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group — as a key advantage, offering customers more flexibility and responsiveness than they can get with traditional vertically launched rockets. 

"We're always looking for flexibility, because we need to be able to act and be able to provide the technology not only that works but also in a timely manner," Col. Carlos Quiñones, director of the U.S. military's Space Test Program (STP), a customer on today's mission, said during Virgin Orbit's launch webcast today. 

Deploying a rocket from an aircraft allows "that flexibility, because now you're not specifically attached to a specific ground point and the challenges that can come with that," Quiñones added. "So I think we're excited about seeing where this technology goes and the opportunity [that comes with] that." 

LauncherOne flew for the first time in May 2020 on a test flight that carried no satellites. That mission failed after a fuel line in the rocket's first-stage engine ruptured.

The second flight — another test, which occurred in January 2021 — went well: LauncherOne delivered 10 cubesats into orbit for NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program. The test phase was over by flight three, which successfully lofted seven small satellites in June 2021

Today's mission, which Virgin Orbit named "Above the Clouds" after a 1998 song by Gang Starr, also carried seven satellites. Four are sponsored by the STP, which does a lot of research and development for the Space Force.

"These are experiments that they're flying, typically to test space technologies and advanced satellites and communication," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said during a prelaunch call with reporters on Tuesday (Jan. 11).

Virgin Orbit's carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, lifts off from Mojave Air and Space Port on Jan. 13, 2022, with the company's LauncherOne rocket under one wing.

Virgin Orbit's carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, lifts off from Mojave Air and Space Port on Jan. 13, 2022, with the company's LauncherOne rocket under one wing.  (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

One of the STP-sponsored experiments, called Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation, will demonstrate cost-efficient, autonomous rendezvous and docking technology using two tiny cubesats, Virgin Orbit representatives said during today's launch webcast. 

Another one, a cubesat built by NASA's Ames Research Center in California called Technology Education Satellite-13, will demonstrate nanosatellite-class machine learning and advanced communication, among other tech. The fourth STP-sponsored payload, the Global Star Evaluation and Risk Reduction Satellite, is a U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory cubesat experiment that aims to see how effectively a prototype patch placed on a satellite's exterior can gather and transmit information about the craft's health.

Polish company SatRevolution provided two of the other three satellites on "Above the Clouds." One of them will join SatRevolution's Stork constellation of Earth-observation spacecraft; the other, called SteamSat-2, will give water-fueled thrusters developed by English company SteamJet Space Systems an off-Earth test.

The seventh satellite that went up today, called Adler-1, belongs to San Francisco-based company Spire Global. The 12-inch-long (30 centimeters) spacecraft will study the space debris environment in low Earth orbit, Virgin Orbit representatives said.

SatRevolution and the STP are repeat customers for Virgin Orbit: Four STP satellites and two Stork spacecraft flew on the June 2021 mission, which was called "Tubular Bells: Part One." (That name came from another song — the first track off Mike Oldfield's 1973 album "Tubular Bells," which was the first ever released by Branson's Virgin Records. "Moment of Truth," the Gang Starr album that contains "Above the Clouds," was a Virgin release as well.)

Cubesats: Tiny payloads, huge benefits for space research

A busy year ahead

"Above the Clouds" kicked off what should be a busy year for Virgin Orbit. The company plans to launch five more missions in 2022, including two from Spaceport Cornwall in England. (The other three will lift off from Mojave Air and Space Port.)

"The Cornwall launches are targeted around the middle of the year — summertime," Hart said during Tuesday's call. 

"That's predicated on getting through the licensing process successfully and some of the logistics, but that is what we're driving for," he said. "And [the first Cornwall flight] will be the first launch ever from U.K. soil and the first [orbital] launch ever from the European area."

Virgin Orbit is working to extend its launch operations to other localities as well. Guam may be next in line; the company has already laid considerable groundwork toward launching from the Pacific island, Hart said. Virgin Orbit also has signed agreements to launch from Japan and Brazil.

"In addition, we are having discussions and different levels of activities with a number of other countries including Australia and several European countries, as well as countries in other areas," Hart said. "So it's a fairly hot topic for us these days."

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 on Facebook

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Mike Wall
Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com 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.