Virgin Orbit to fly 11 satellites for NASA on second orbital launch demo later this year

Virgin Orbit’s first attempt at an orbital launch demo may not have gone entirely to plan (the LauncherOne rocket released as planned but its flight was cut short just after that), but it has booked a payload for its next try — 11 science satellites selected by NASA and primarily designed and built by U.S. universities. Virgin says that it will fly this second launch demo, complete with its cargo, sometime “before the end of the year.”

After the first attempt was cut short prior to the planned conclusion of the rocket, which was aiming to accomplish a more sustained flight of the empty LauncherOne rocket, potentially even to orbital altitude, the Virgin Orbit team conducted a comprehensive investigation of the cause of the issue encountered. That investigation is now nearly complete, the company says, and in a blog post they note the cause of the mission-ending failure — a broken high-pressure line that supplies LauncherOne’s rocket engine with liquid oxygen, a required component for the combustion that drives thrust.

Virgin notes that it still has some work to do before the investigation is technically complete, but the small satellite space launch company says it’s confident it knows what technical fixes are needed to prevent the same thing from happening in the future, and it’s already in the process of implementing those.

NASA was one of Virgin Orbit’s first customers, and naturally after Launch Demo 1 didn’t go quite to plan, Virgin told the agency they’d have to bump their upcoming payload launch down the line, since Demo 2 would need to be another test without risking any payloads on board to try to achieve the goals of the flubbed first flight. NASA, however, said they’d be comfortable flying payloads on the next attempt regardless.

That shows a tremendous amount of confidence in Virgin Orbit and their program. That end of year target launch time frame is also highly ambitious by any standards in the space launch industry, but the company says it’s still going to aim for that while at the same time focusing on making sure everything is up to standards in terms of technical details and issue resolution.

Virgin Orbit hopes to be offering regular operational launches of its system soon. The company’s approach involves flying a rocket attached to a modified 747 carrier aircraft to an altitude around where large passenger jets fly, whereupon the rocket separates from the plane and ignites its own engine to carry small payloads the rest of the way to space.