Jun 30, 2021 - Science

Virgin Orbit successfully launches a clutch of satellites to orbit

A plane flying above a rocket launching to space

A Virgin Orbit flight test in May 2020. Photo: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

Virgin Orbit launched seven satellites from three different customers to space on Wednesday.

Why it matters: Virgin Orbit is entering an increasingly crowded market of launchers hoping to take advantage of the growing demand by nations and other companies to launch small satellites to orbit in the coming years.

How it works: The company's Cosmic Girl 747 carrier plane took off from California's Mojave Air and Spaceport, carrying the LauncherOne rocket loaded down with satellites under its wing.

  • After arriving at the correct area above the Pacific coast, LauncherOne dropped from the plane and its rocket motor ignited, bringing the rocket and its payload up to orbit.
  • "It's a pinch-yourself moment," Richard Branson said of the launch on a Virgin Orbit webcast. The event comes after a successful test in January.
  • The seven satellites launched Wednesday were for the company's customers: the U.S. Department of Defense, Royal Netherlands Air Force and SatRevolution.

The big picture: Historically, small satellites have been forced to hitch rides to space as secondary payloads aboard rockets launching larger satellites, leaving those customers vulnerable to the whims and schedules of the primary on the mission.

  • Small launchers like Virgin Orbit see their value as providing a dedicated ride to these small satellites, allowing them to get to space on their own schedule.
Go deeper