Attach a missile to the bottom of an airplane. Fly it up several miles. Drop it The engine fires and the rocket and its payload zoom into space.
Virgin Orbit, one of the many companies founded by Richard Branson, plans to do so on Sunday or Monday. It is a demonstration of a new missile system for sending small payloads into orbit.
When is the start?
Virgin Orbit, based in Long Beach, California, announced two possible windows for launch on Sunday and Monday. Early on Sunday, the company announced on Twitter that the trial of the day had been canceled.
Mr. Hart said Monday’s weather was favorable for the test.
How does the start work?
A modified 747 named Cosmic Girl will carry the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing. (Virgin Orbit uses a design idiosyncrasy of the 747: a pylon that carries an additional motor.)
The aircraft takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port and flies west across the Pacific and then south. At a height slightly below 35,000 feet or about 6.5 miles above sea level, Cosmic Girl flies diagonally upwards and drops LauncherOne. A few seconds later, the rocket’s booster stage ignites and the rocket then bends up into the sky.
The jet’s 6.5-mile lead from the ground is not of much help as it does not have much upward speed. The rocket still has to accelerate to 18,000 miles an hour to reach a stable orbit around the earth.
If everything works, a small test payload ends up in orbit. However, Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, found that about half of the maiden flights were unsuccessful. To prevent the debris from growing around the earth, the payload is placed in a low orbit and falls back into the atmosphere where it burns.
Even if the flight is not entirely successful, the data collected would be useful. The rocket engine’s ignition – the first time in flight and not on a test bench on the ground – is “the key moment in this flight,” said Pomerantz. “We will continue as long as possible, possibly even into orbit.”
Why launch a rocket from an airplane?
An airplane is essentially a mobile launch pad that allows rocket launches from many other locations. In thunderstorms the jet can fly around or over it. And flying over the ocean immediately reduces the risk to people below if the missile detonates.
“It gives us incredible flexibility,” said Hart. “We actually have mobility. We can fly into space anywhere a 747 can be accommodated. That is almost every place. “
How much can LauncherOne start?
The two-stage missile can lift up to £ 1,100 – Mr. Pomerantz said a typical payload would be around £ 650 – on a low earth orbit. Only smaller satellites can fit into the rocket’s four-foot payload section. However, the cost is relatively low: around $ 12 million.
Mr. Hart said the company had received start-up orders worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
LauncherOne is one of many small rockets developed by many companies to put smaller satellites into orbit. With advances in computer chips and miniaturization, powerful satellites can now be much smaller than in the past. Are competitors Rocket Lab, which successfully launched its rockets from New Zealand and set up a second launchpad in Wallops Island, Va.
While Virgin Orbit would be slower than Rocket Lab to put a payload into orbit, it would be ahead of other emerging competitors.
Another small rocket start-up, Astra, was ready to win at least part of a $ 12 million prize from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. While the rocket was refueled on a launchpad in March, the attempt to launch was canceled due to technical problems. Astra has not attempted to start since.
While many industry observers expect only a few companies to get enough business to survive, “I don’t see it as very busy,” said Hart, who was optimistic that the emerging market would be larger than many expect.
Virgin Galactic, now a listed company, is separated from Virgin Orbit.
Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman, developed a similar missile called Pegasus, which was first flown in 1990. Most recently, she launched a NASA satellite, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer to orbit in October. In recent years, however, Northrop Grumman has found only a few customers who are interested in Pegasus, which costs many times more than LauncherOne.