Virgin Orbit plans to return to flight before end of this year

After the first Demo Mission of its LauncherOne air launch system ended in the ocean rather than orbit, Virgin Orbit plans to launch Demo Mission 2 on December 19. This will be its second-ever launch attempt, and this time, it will be adding customer payloads to the top of the rocket.

Back in May, Virgin Orbit conducted the first test of its new LauncherOne system to attempt to get a slice of the smallsat launcher business. The first launch did not end in a successful orbit. Just shortly after the first stage ignition, a breach in the high-pressure line carrying cryogenic liquid oxygen to the main engine caused a stop in thrust. However, even though they didn’t get to fly long, it proved several procedures and systems needed for future flights, so it was deemed a success.

“In our first Launch Demo, we demonstrated the entire prelaunch sequence, flyout, rocket separation and unpowered flight, engine start and first stage powered flight. Our team is fired up to build on those steps and to demonstrate the rest of the rocket system, including our upper stage.”

First time payloads on board

Virgin Orbit is working with NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services and NASA’s Launch Service Program to fly payloads that are tolerant to the risk of flying on newer launch vehicles. Having this opportunity has provided the ability to verify payload integration procedures in their payload processing building. The nine CubeSats are from several universities, and NASA’s Ames Research Center is performing educational, scientific, and tech demonstrations. NASA’s CubeSat, TechEdSat-7, plans to test new technologies for future experiments on CubeSats and, after 60 days, will deploy an “eco-brake” to test quick re-entry into the atmosphere.

Courtesy: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit still has to perform a wet dress rehearsal before it can proceed with the launch on December 19. Cosmic Girl, the carrier plane for the LauncherOne vehicle, has performed a test flight to simulate the mission, and now, they have mated the rocket to the left wing of the retrofitted 747.

December looks to be a pretty packed month for spaceflight with SpaceX’s starship 15 km hop, first phase-2 CRS mission, NASA’s SLS Green Run test near Christmas, and China’s “Chang’e 5” lunar landing. Hopefully, by the end of the holiday season, we all get what we wish for: successful tests and launches!

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