Ronald Hatcher.

Personal notes and projects.

Virgin Orbit air launch to orbit system - HPR model

LauncherOne: Almost Nearly

Virgin Orbit, a subsidiary of the Virgin Group, ventured into the commercial space industry with a unique approach: air-launching rockets. This method, involving launching rockets from a carrier aircraft in midair, promised greater flexibility and responsiveness compared to traditional ground-launched rockets. The concept aimed to revolutionise satellite deployment, particularly for small satellites, by offering a more cost-effective and versatile launch solution.

underwing

The design and production of LauncherOne, under the aegis of Virgin Orbit, took place in their Long Beach, California facility. This centre of innovation was crucial for marrying the traditional aspects of rocket engineering with the unconventional approach of air-launch technology. The centrepiece of this project was the integration with Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747-400, epitomising the venture's ingenuity. Virgin Orbit's commitment here was not just to develop a new rocket but to redefine the parameters of satellite launch systems, making them more accessible and adaptable for smaller payloads.

Development of LauncherOne

LauncherOne was developed as a two-stage orbital launch vehicle. Designed to be carried aloft by a modified Boeing 747-400, named Cosmic Girl, it represented a novel approach in the small satellite market. The rocket was capable of carrying payloads up to 500 kilograms into a Sun-synchronous orbit, targeting a niche market of small satellites. Throughout its development, LauncherOne underwent various design iterations and improvements, reflecting the evolving needs of the satellite industry.

fabrication

LauncherOne Development Timeline

YearMilestoneDescription
2015Initial DesignFirst concept of LauncherOne announced
2017Design RevisionUpdated design to increase payload capacity
2019Test FlightsConducted successful test flights with Cosmic Girl
2021First Commercial LaunchAchieved first successful commercial
satellite deployment
fabrication no fins

Design and Specifications

cutaway

Comparison of Launch Methods

FeatureAir-Launched (LauncherOne)Ground-Launched
CostLowerHigher
FlexibilityHigh (can launch from various locations)Limited (fixed launch sites)
Payload CapacityUp to 500 kgVaries, generally higher
Launch ConditionsLess dependent on ground weatherHighly dependent on ground weather
marketing

Technical Specifications

CategoryDetails
ManufacturerVirgin Orbit
Country of originUnited States
Project costUS$700 million
Cost per launchUS$12 million
Size
HeightApprox. 21.3 m (70 ft)
MassApprox. 30 tons
Stages2
Capacity
Payload to 500 km SSO
Mass300 kg (660 lb)
Payload to 230 km LEO
Mass500 kg (1,100 lb)
Associated rockets
FamilyAir launch to orbit
ComparableElectron, Vector-H, Falcon 1, Pegasus
Launch history
StatusRetired
Launch sitesMojave Air and Space Port, California
Newquay Airport, United Kingdom
Total launches6
Success(es)4
Failure(s)2
First flight25 May 2020
Last flight9 January 2023
First stage
Diameter1.8 m (5 ft 11 in)
Powered byNewtonThree (N3)
Maximum thrustVacuum: 326.8 kN (73,500 lbf)
Burn timeApprox. 180 seconds
PropellantRP-1/LOX
Second stage
Diameter1.5 m (4 ft 11 in)
Powered byNewtonFour (N4)
Maximum thrustVacuum: 22.2 kN (5,000 lbf)
Burn timeApprox. 360 seconds
PropellantRP-1/LOX
Launch PlatformBoeing 747-400 (Cosmic Girl)
Flight Altitude for LaunchApproximately 10,000 meters

Launches and Missions

virgin orbit launch

LauncherOne's journey was marked by both triumphs and setbacks. Its initial tests and launches showcased the potential of air-launched systems, but also revealed challenges unique to this method. The most notable launches included a successful demonstration mission, followed by a series of launches with varying degrees of success. The final launch, which ended in failure, was a critical blow to the company.

Launch Summary

DateOutcomeNotable Payload
25 May 2020 19:50Failure"inert test payload" and INTERNSAT
17 January 2021 19:38:51Success10 NASA CubeSats
30 June 2021 14:47Success4 military CubeSats, 2 CNCE sats
13 January 2022 22:51:39Success4 DoD satellites
2 July 2022 06:53Success7 Space Force sats, ELaNa CubeSats
9 January 2023 23:08:49Failure

Challenges and Solutions

Throughout its operation, LauncherOne faced numerous challenges, including technical difficulties with the rocket's propulsion system, integration complexities with the carrier aircraft, and market competition. The company's responses to these challenges showcased innovative problem-solving but also highlighted the inherent risks of pioneering new technologies in the space sector.

Challenges and Responses

ChallengeSolution AttemptedOutcome
Propulsion System IssuesRedesign of engine componentsPartially successful; improved reliability
Aircraft IntegrationEnhanced structural modifications to Cosmic GirlSuccessful; improved launch efficiency
Market CompetitionMarketing and business strategy adjustmentLimited impact due to market dynamics

Conclusion and Legacy

Despite its ultimate downfall, LauncherOne's story is a tale of ambition and innovation in the new space era. Its approach to launching small satellites demonstrated a bold step in space exploration, challenging traditional methodologies. The legacy of LauncherOne lies in its attempt to democratise space access for smaller payloads, inspiring future endeavours in the industry.

LauncherOne's Impact

AreaContribution
Technological InnovationPioneered air-launch technology for small satellites
Market ImpactExpanded the small satellite launch market
Industry LessonsHighlighted the challenges and potential of air-launch systems