Virgin Orbit, a spin-off company from Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, is set to attempt its first orbital launch this weekend.
The event is set to take place sometime between Sunday, May 24, and Monday, May 25. Both days will offer an opportunity to launch between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Pacific time. The mission will debut the LauncherOne two-stage orbital rocket, paired with a Boeing 747 dubbed Cosmic Girl – a reference to British funk band Jamiroquai, perhaps?
It's pure conjecture, but in realm of possibility—the British funk band's last album came out on Virgin EMI.
Virgin Orbit is taking a unique approach to spaceflight compared to the likes of Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. While most will be familiar with space rockets taking off from a stationary launch pad, Virgin Orbit prefers to attach its rockets to airplanes and send the airplane up first. The plan is to send up the 747 with a rocket attached from Mojave Air and Space Port. It will then fly to the Pacific Ocean and release the rocket.
The mission will mark a number of firsts. It will mark the first time LauncherOne has flown. Successfully igniting the rocket's Newton Three first stage engines will mark the first time anyone has ever achieved such a feat for an orbital-class liquid-fueled vehicle flying horizontally through the air. If the rocket reaches 50 miles high, the firm claims it'll be the first time a rocket of this kind has reached space.
Is Virgin Orbit the same as Virgin Galactic? – No, they are two different companies. The two are both part of the Virgin Group, as part of that parent firm's Galactic Ventures portfolio. In a March 2017 release announcing the new Virgin Orbit company, the firm explained that the new venture will focus on small satellite launch services, similar to SpaceX's ongoing launches that use the Falcon 9 rocket. Virgin Galactic will focus on human spaceflight. A third firm, The Spaceship Company, is owned by Virgin Galactic and focuses on design and manufacture for aerospace vehicles.
So what is Virgin Orbit planning to do? – The team is unsure how long the first mission will fly, but the goal will be to fly for as long as possible. The rocket will need to endure speeds of up to 18,000 mph without breaking up, while maintaining its temperature within acceptable levels. The longer the flight the better, as it means the group will be able to collect more data for future missions. If it travels for long enough, the team hopes to deploy a test payload, then return to Earth and de-orbit.
The odds are looking slim that Virgin Orbit will be successful on first attempt, despite five years of development. The team notes that around half of all maiden flights end in failure. While future missions will focus on sending up satellites into space, the first one will have a simpler goal of actually launching successfully.
Virgin Orbit is emerging in an increasingly-crowded race of private space companies. Beyond the big names like SpaceX and Blue Origin, smaller firms like Rocket Lab have been gradually making their mark and expanding the number of firms involved. In the case of Rocket Lab, in March it successfully managed to recover a rocket returning to Earth using a helicopter.
But Virgin's business has suffered during the coronavirus outbreak. Earlier this month, Branson announced he would be selling $500 million in Virgin Galactic shares, amounting to over a fifth of the entrepreneur's total stake in the business. Branson explained that the funds would be used to support the group's holiday and travel businesses, as its airlines suffer due to the severe drop in air travel.