Virgin Orbit Readies First Launch

Ever since the Pan Am “Space Clipper” first slid into frame in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the world has been waiting for the day that privately funded spaceflight would become as routine as air travel. Unfortunately, it’s a dream that’s taken a bit longer to become reality than many would have hoped. The loss of Challenger and Columbia were heartbreaking reminders that travel amongst the stars is not for the faint of heart or the ill-equipped, and pushed commercial investment in space back by decades.

Although Pan Am has since folded, we now have a number of companies working hard towards making the dream of commercial spaceflight a reality. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown private companies developing and operating their own orbital class vehicles is a concept no longer limited to science fiction. Now that private industry has a foot in the door, more companies are coming forward with their own plans for putting their hardware into orbit. In many ways we’re seeing the dawn of a second Space Race.

If all goes according to plan, a new challenger should be entering the ring in the very near future. Scheduled to perform their first test launch before the end of the year, Virgin Orbit (a spin-off of the passenger carrying Virgin Galactic) promises to deliver small payloads to Earth orbit faster and cheaper than their competitors. But while most other commercial space companies are using fairly traditional booster rockets to do their heavy lifting, Virgin Orbit is opting for a the less common air launched approach. Before Virgin joins the ranks of commercial companies exploring the final frontier, lets take a look at their plan for getting into space and the advantages it offers compared to the competition.


Virgin’s two-stage rocket, dubbed LauncherOne, has been in development since 2007. The design has gone through several revisions, most notably a redesign in 2015 that lengthened the rocket and greatly increased its payload capacity. The current version of LauncherOne can put 300 kg (660 lb) into a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), slightly pulling ahead of its closest commercial competitor, Rocket Lab’s Electron at 225 kg (495 lb).

The payload capacity of both vehicles is absolutely dwarfed by the much larger and more advanced SpaceX Falcon 9, but that’s by design. Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab are both going after the so-called “Smallsat” market, which are small and light payloads that would only qualify as secondary payloads on traditional launchers. The main advantage of being so much smaller is the reduced manufacturing and operating costs: Virgin Orbit estimates a per launch cost of $10 – $12 million USD, which is around 1/6th the cost of a Falcon 9.

Like their competitors, Virgin Orbit designs and builds their own engines. Vertical integration, where a company does as much production in-house as possible instead of purchasing from external vendors, is proving essential in this new age of low-cost spaceflight. The single NewtonThree engine on the first stage produces 74,000 lbf of thrust, which is more than double the thrust produced by the nine engines that power the first stage of Electron.

Cosmic Girl

To carry the rocket up to a launch altitude of 11,000 m (35,000 ft), Virgin pulled a Boeing 747-400 out of their fleet of passenger airliners, the aptly named Cosmic Girl. Adapting the former airliner to carry LauncherOne is made easier by a rather unique feature of the 747: there’s an attachment point on the wing designed to carry a fifth engine. But the fifth engine, mounted tight to the fuselage, isn’t actually usable by the plane. It’s for ferrying a spare engine between airports rather than having to ship such a large and heavy object via traditional means. As the general reliability of jet engines has improved over the years this functionality is rarely used in practice, but it does make an extremely handy way to carry around a rocket.

The last time Qantas Airways had to carry a fifth engine on a 747 it was a big enough deal they decided to make a short video about it, which gives a good overall view of the kinds of adjustments required to get the plane flying with an extra six tons hanging off one side.

The Case for Air Launches

X-15 released from B-52 Mothership

Launching a rocket from the wing of a 747 might sound outlandish, especially since Virgin Orbit’s competitors don’t seem to have any problem launching their boosters from the ground. But it’s actually a method that dates back to the 1940’s.

Glamorous Glennis, the Bell X-1 piloted by Chuck Yeager that broke the sound barrier on the 14th of October 1947, was dropped out of the bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress. Almost exactly 20 years later, an X-15 piloted by William Knight was launched from the wing of a modified B-52 bomber and accelerated to Mach 6.72; setting a world speed record for the fastest powered manned aircraft that has yet to be beaten.

A more contemporary example is the Pegasus rocket, operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation. This three-stage winged rocket uses solid rocket motors to accelerate a 443 kg (977 lb) payload to orbit after being released from the belly of a modified Lockheed L-1011 TriStar named Stargazer.

Launching a rocket from an airplane doesn’t get it anywhere near orbital speed or altitude. But what it does do is get the rocket above the turbulent weather on the surface, thus avoiding the most common reason for scrubbed and delayed launches. It also removes the need for expensive ground support equipment and launch pad, meaning launches can happen from essentially anywhere with an airport large enough to handle the carrier plane. These capabilities should allow Virgin Orbit to launch small satellites from areas which traditionally haven’t been able to support space operations; a recent deal could see LauncherOne launch the first satellite from British soil in 50 years.

The Democratization of Space

While SpaceX arguably gets the most media attention, they’re far from the only player in the game. We now have multiple companies, all using slightly different approaches, pushing towards the goal of cheap and regular access to space. This sort of varied competition drives innovation and is exactly what the industry needed. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) have even started looking at revamps of their established launch vehicles to make them more competitive with commercial offerings.

To those who might think that there will never be a need for civilians to have cheap access to space, you should remember the same was once said about computers. Indeed, the revolution has already begun. Just last year we spoke with a team that developed an exceptionally low-cost research satellite which Virgin Orbit is scheduled to launch as one of its first operational payloads.

61 thoughts on “Virgin Orbit Readies First Launch

  1. Considering how much fuel is consumed just to get a rocket “to clear the tower”, I thought launching from an aircraft at 11000 meters at say 450 Kmph would have brought much larger fuel and fuel weight savings.
    Or is the weight of the rocket needed to get to orbital speed/altitude from the aircraft the reason why a 600Kg payload
    seems to max out the capacity of a 747?
    (I am Not a Rocket Surgeon)

      1. Air launch usually goes: Drop the rocket, then light its candle.

        The problem with over the fuselage is that you’d have to untether & then light the rocket to decouple the rocket & aircraft – with a good chance of your exhaust burning up the top of the aircraft as you leave.

        Under the fuselage has obvious problems on an unmodified 747…

    1. The advantages go much beyond fuel the fuel savings.
      An air launched rocket can have a higher extension ratio nozzle on the first stage which can improve the ISP by as much as 10%.

    2. The need for orbital speed (450 km/h is only 1.6% of what’s needed for low Earth orbit) and the tyranny of the rocket equation mean the air launch doesn’t save much on fuel.
      This system is weight limited by what the fifth engine attachment point can handle; a custom-modified 747 (I see you thought of the Shuttle carriers in another post) could air launch a much heavier vehicle.

  2. I was not born before/during the first space race, but being alive now (for the second one) is amazing. Having seen on live stream the feat of Baumgartner some years back (jump from his ‘baloon’ from 38km down to earth) made me so proud of the tech being developed!.

  3. “Launching a rocket from the wing of a 747 might sound outlandish, especially since Virgin Orbit’s competitors don’t seem to have any problem launching their boosters from the ground. But it’s actually a method that dates back to the 1940’s.”

    Seems logical actually.

    “These capabilities should allow Virgin Orbit to launch small satellites from areas which traditionally haven’t been able to support space operations; a recent deal could see LauncherOne launch the first satellite from British soil in 50 years.”

    Thanks to technical progress and miniaturization. Making it easier to build those LEOs everyone wants.

  4. In the video, I’m surprised that Quantas didn’t put a cover over the front of the engine being transported.
    The feathering of a “dead” engine is “a real drag” on an aircraft.

    1. If you freeze the video in the right place you get a better look. It looks like they covered and locked the core, and replaced the front fan with a straight blade passthrough “fan” that won’t spin. Might be less drag this way than covering it…

    1. Monday morning 7:15 am.
      Daughter: “Dad, I need $10K.”
      Dad: (spitting out coffee onto his virtual screen and keyboard on the breakfast table) “$10K DOLLARS! WHAT FOR?”
      Daughter: “I forgot to tell you, my class is taking a field trip today to visit the ISS Museum.” “Oh, and I’ll need another $100 to buy lunch and virtual souvenirs at the Museum’s Gift Shop.”

  5. Incidentally that B52 shown there, just retired about eleven years previously. And the Pegasus folks started out with their launcher also being delivered the same way. It seems for a while the company collaborated with the space agency for some of the uses of the thing.

    Oh and the koalas still strongly dislike Quantas.

  6. can we drop the joke that for profit companies drive innovation?

    innovation is opposite of what a for profit company wants because it cuts into bottom line. they want you to buy the same product as long as possible with no changes so they don’t put the money out to change the production line. no innovation is driven by outsides like collages, think tanks and government funded labs that do things no no other reason then to push the limits. later these ideas may get sucked up by a for profit company if just trying to get into a filed but an established company do everything it can to kill innovation.

    the only reason government space agencies seem behind is because the governments have been cutting funding for them for awhile now all around the world. after all most of the science behind most of these companies come for former scientists for those government agencies.

    I honestly think for profit space flight will end badly.

    as another tenet of for profit companies is cutting corners and space is not a place for that.

    1. I would say that competition drives innovation not for profit companies.

      A good example would be ula before and after space x – somehow they need to figure out how to compete they already drastically reduced launch prices…

      Another example would be the tech sector Google innovates and is for profit, Microsoft does not (or fails to market in fear of eliminating their monopoly, look where that has got them…

      By no means are private corporations the be all end all, but they have the potential to be much more efficient no need to deal with the shifting goalposts and bureaucracy that come with a democratic government.

      Sure public funded investments can be very effective, we got to the moon right? But maintaining political will over long periods of time required is hard.

    2. Are you kidding? For profit companies that fail to innovate get eaten up by the competition that does. Innovation often pays for itself in a better product, better reliability, and higher profit margins. See what spacex is doing for example.

    3. You say governments are cutting funding for space flight, but then you accuse for profit companies of being cheap and cutting corners.

      What caused the two shuttle disasters, if not for corner cutting? What caused the hiatus in manned spaceflight after Apollo and after the shuttle if not cheapness and corner cutting?

      EVERYONE wants to save money. The advantage of private corporations is that they also want to MAKE money. They want that so badly that they will even spend money and innovate and improve quality in order to make money.

      The government doesn’t have those incentives. And that’s why private efforts can surpass government efforts.

        1. Indeed. I didn’t say that the gov’t will never innovate or that companies will always surpass the government in innovation.

          But DARPA and the labs are created for the sole purpose of innovation. Departments that are created for other purposes (i.e. almost all of the government) and which have captive customers (i.e. almost all of the government) do not have strong incentives to innovate.

      1. Once Russia gave up space. NASA funding started to dry up big time. To many in Congress, the Space Race was just something to humiliate the Russians with, nothing more.

        We lost shuttles for design and management reasons. Not cost cutting.

        What we see now with the privateers is mostly 60’s level tech. They wouldn’t be anywhere if they didn’t have access to NASA tech and rocket motor designs going back to the 50’s. Some use Russian motors as well.

        If they had to start from scratch, they wouldn’t even attempt it. These private companies are where they are because the American taxpayers over the course of 30 years pumped hundred of billions into the space program and related tech. Bezos didn’t, Musk didn’t or that cheap British chap.

        1. A privateer is “an armed ship that is privately owned and manned, commissioned by a government to fight or harass enemy ships”. For you to call SpaceX or Blue Origin “privateers” might satisfy your desire to use inflammatory rhetoric and demagogue this issue, but it’s a total non sequitur.

          SpaceX and Blue Origin have paid every tax they’re required to and paid every royalty they’re required to. There’s nothing sinister about building upon previous accomplishments. And yes, the government gets credit for a lot of those accomplishments, but the government also relied on things developed in the private sector.

          So what’s the problem? What point are you trying to make?

    4. You seem to miss the fact that a for-profit company needs to set itself apart from the crowd in order to survive in a competitive market (read innovate).

      Up until recently, the market has been monopolized by governments. These new private space companies are all trying to win contracts and – as a result – must reduce costs, which the previous monopoly was not terribly concerned with. This drive to lower costs requires new ideas since the old ones are expensive. We call this process innovation.

      Of course, when monopolies arise in a given sector, they become complacent until new entries challenge the status quo (e.g. look at ULA and SpaceX).

      For profit companies drive innovation when competition requires them to.

    1. Yes, and it doesn’t seem real popular lately. I don’t think there are a lot of customers for launching a small satellite into LEO. It’s not obvious why Virgin wants to jump into this.

      1. “It’s not obvious why Virgin wants to jump into this.”

        Richard: “But, Ma, all my friends are doing it!”
        Mrs. Branson: “Just because all your billionaire friends jump into space, doesn’t mean you have to also!”

      2. There’s a huge, and growing, market for launching small LEO satellites. The Pegasus is just too damn expensive. It’s only a bit cheaper than a full Falcon 9 launch, and ~4x what Virgin will be charging.

  7. This method of launch can only handle a narrow window of payload to low orbit because the rocket size and weight need to be reduced to be launched by the 747. It can’t lift regular satellite payloads.

    1. The mount they’re using is the limiting factor not the 747.
      The jet can carry over 100ton on it’s back as it did with the shuttle a hydrogen rocket that size would be good for payloads of 7 to 10 tons.

  8. Why use a 747 at all ? In my mind there will be a lot of dead weight.

    Why not design a custom aircraft (or two for extra stability) that are literally just retractable landing gears, and gigantic wings filled with fuel and 4 jet engines on each. A black box (on each) and a 100% computer controlled. Program with their full flight path and cargo release point on the ground and lock out all overrides without some ultra secret One Time Pad.

    I also find it a bit odd that they are using a last generation 747, the 747-400 model (1988-04-29), instead of the latest 747-8 (2010-02-08), but then the older model does have a slightly higher fuel capacity (~1% more). But it also has a lower Maximum takeoff weight (~8% less), 412.76 t for the for the older 747-400 and 447.696 t for the latest 747-8. Maybe the insurance costs are much lower for the legacy plane.

    1. When building something “new”, it helps to have a lot of tried and true components that won’t need their own R&D phase. For instance, building an aircraft that uses all carbon fiber skin, with a new glue instead of rivets, that uses experimental engines that run on a newly developed fuel, and different control surfaces (think canards, shark skin, and bat style folding wings….)
      All that to haul an experimental rocket to altitude.

    2. Originally they were going to carry it up with White Knight Two, but the rocket ended up being too large and they needed something with more muscle.

      As for why they would use an older 747 model, a large part of it is no doubt the same reason people are still sending us in hacks done with an original Raspberry Pi: it’s what they had laying around already so they might as well use it.

    3. A new aircraft as you propose would take at least a decade or two before it’s first flight and would cost billions. The more exotic and cutting edge the longer it takes and more chances of total failure as well.

      If it’s built it will be by the military. No one else can afford to tie up the money and resources to make it viable.


    I hope this is just the author’s or editor’s mistake, while they were looking for a catchy phrase, because this has nothing to do with democracy (one man, one vote). It is a comercialization and privatization (N dollars, M satellites) of innovations developed for taxpayers’ money decades ago. The same happend a few decades ago with computers and, unlike some had hoped, it didn’t bring us any closer to a more equal and democratic society.

      1. Yes, people try to use words in different context and fail from time to time. This is such case. The comparison between a knowledge and a space industry isn’t very accurate too. Few private corporations gaining access to space technology is nothing compared teaching whole nations to read and write.

        1. Anything that requires a large amount of resources will never be accessible to everyone.

          Having “democratic” control over a large amount of resources is democracy in name only. In practice, a small number of people make the decisions over how those resources are used.

        2. While the article’s use of “democratization” may be inaccurate, so is your use of “privatization” (“to transfer from public or government control or ownership to private enterprise”). Nothing owned by the gov’t has been transferred to private ownership. SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc. are taking publicly available information, making use of it commercially, and adding their own privately-owned innovations on top of it. But the public has not lost ownership of anything. The information that was public, still is.

          1. Indeed. The sole transfer of the knowledge developed for the public money to the private sector, is not what I was referring to as “privatization”. What bothers me more, is that the more or less democratic state gives the control over the entire filed the knowledge, the technology and the operation, to the private sector. The field that looks to me like a natural monopoly. Hence, public operator isn’t an unreasonable choice. I may agree, that the term “commercialisation” fits better here. It even brings good analogy: the Internet. It was commercialised in 1993 and it took the private sector no more that two decades to monopolize it and another five year to jeopardize democratic procedures of the strongest state in the world.

            I am really afraid, that letting private corporations fly into space and take a payload from whoever pays more, isn’t exactly the best solution.

          2. I don’t see why space flight would be a natural monopoly. Air travel isn’t.

            As for the internet: everyone’s so uptight about net neutrality, but the ISPs haven’t been the ones censoring people; that would be the social media sites. And no one anticipated that social media sites would be dangerous monopolies.

            But the bigger point is that, be it the internet or space travel, if it remained under government control, it just never would become accessible to the people. So the choice isn’t between the status quo and some utopian vision of the internet and space travel; the choice is between the status quo and virtually no internet or space travel.

  10. With help of the enthusiasm and deep pockets of the prime investor and a rising number of future customers who understand the benefit of a mission tailored launch capability, Virgin Orbit secured sufficient funding to move ahead with this endeavor. But a 747 is still an expensive aircraft to operate. I wonder if the same air launced concept Is still effective in smaller scale (e.g. payload of ~20-50 lbs worth of cubestas inserted in SSO)? What twin engine aircraft can be modified to carry a cubesat launcher under its belly? A 737? A learjet? How small can the aircraft be, whlie still being relevant for a satellite launch?

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