Virgin Orbit successfully launches its first commercial payloads to space

Virgin Orbit had a successful first commercial launch, meaning there’s now officially another small satellite launch provider in operation with a track record of delivering payloads to space. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket took off from its carrier aircraft at around 11:45 AM EDT today, and the spacecraft had a successful series of engine fires and stage separations to make the trip to low Earth orbit.

On board, Virgin Orbit carried seven payloads, including the first-ever defense satellite for the Netherlands, as well as cubsats developed by the U.S. Department of Defense for its Rapid Agile Launch initiative. The initiative is seeking to test the viability of flying small spacecraft to space on relatively short notice on launch platforms with increased flexibility, which Virgin Orbit’s provides thanks to its ability to take off horizontally from more or less conventional runways.

Virgin Orbit also carried two Earth observation satellites for Polish startup SatRevolution, and it will be delivering more in future flights to help build out that company’s planned 14-spacecraft constellation.

In January, Virgin Orbit completed its final demonstration mission, reaching orbit for the first time with LauncherOne. That paved the way for this mission, and the company plans to increase the pace and frequency of its commercial missions, with at least one more planned tentatively for later this year and many more in 2022.

In terms of payload capacity, Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One can carry around 1,100 pounds to low Earth orbit, which compares favorably with the capacity of Rocket Lab’s Electron, which can carry around 661 pounds to the same destination.

It fits a niche for small satellite operators that currently have a lot of demand, served in part by SpaceX, as well with its ridesharing missions, but Virgin Orbit has the potential to provide more dedicated services for operator looking to launch just a few small spacecraft for a modest constellation. And as mentioned, its potential for varying its take-off location in future could be a big competitive advantage in the defense and security industries.