Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is getting ready to launch its first orbital space flight attempt as it shipped its LauncherOne rocket from its factory and is anticipated to happen some time this fall.
Virgin Orbit is part of Branson’s colossal group of companies called the Virgin Group, which is comprised of more than 60 companies including space ventures Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and VOX Space.
As described by Branson, Virgin Orbit aims to serve the U.S. Air Force as a first responder in the instance that military space equipment have been compromised. The space company says that their technology and methods will be able to do within a 24-hour notice.
In September 24, the company said that it has transported the LauncherOne rocket from its factory in Long Beach, California, to the Mojave Air and Space Port in California as they finalize tests in preparation for its maiden orbital flight.
Prior to the tests, the company said it will put the vehicle on a new test stand in Mojave for “a number of critical exercises,” such as fueling the vehicle.
“The main takeaway from these final few exercises is verification of our integrated launch and flight systems,” the company said in its statement. “We are prepping and practicing, making sure we know how to do everything we could conceivably ever need to do.”
However, Virgin Orbit was not able to give a solid schedule on when they will be able to complete the said tests or when they will actually perform the orbital flight. Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris September 11 that he expected those final tests be completed in a matter of weeks.
“It will take a handful of weeks to get through a number of wet dress rehearsals, crew training, and verification of the system,” he said. “We’ll do one flight test with that rocket and then we’ll get to orbit.” He estimated the company would be ready for launch “in the middle of this fall.”
Branson told a similar schedule in an on-stage interview September 16 during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Symposium in National Harbor, Maryland.
“In about six weeks, eight weeks, we will be firing the engines on the next drop test and heading at eighteen and a half thousand miles per hour around the Earth in orbit, beginning to drop off satellites,” he said.
The air-launched rocket will eventually be mated to the company’s modified Boeing 747 aircraft, first for a captive-carry test flight and then for the first orbital launch attempt for the vehicle.
According to Branson, the 747 will serve as a mobile launching pad for satellite deployments. The launch vehicle, LauncherOne, is tucked under the wing of the aircraft and when dropped from a high altitude, it ignites its engine and flies a satellite to orbit.
Notably, the LauncherOne system sailed through its first drop test in July and is set to perform another for the U.S. Department of Defense in Guam.
With even more significance, Virgin Orbit’s orbital space flight test will be a testament to Branson’s commitment towards aiding the U.S. military in facing adversaries regarding the space domain.
The plans come as the Pentagon is looking for a launch service that will be able to serve the U.S. military, specifically the Air Force, whereas their space assets can be less vulnerable to attacks by advanced adversaries such as China and Russia.
“Our thinking behind Virgin Orbit was that at present if you want to put a satellite in space and you’re in America, there are two places you can launch from,” Branson said. “Generally speaking, it takes about six months to eight months to get a slot, and obviously having only two places it’s quite vulnerable to attack as well.”
Branson said Virgin hopes to have “six or eight” LauncherOne aircraft eventually on runways in the US, Canada, Britain and other European countries to be able to provide rapid launch and satellite resiliency for Western militaries.
“Hopefully, it will be a deterrent to an enemy state, that is to not attack satellites in the first place,” Branson said.