In this image from a video made available by Virgin Orbit, the Earth’s surface, left, is seen from the company’s LauncherOne rocket on a mission to send satellites from three countries into space on Wednesday June 30, 2021.
Virgin Orbit via AP
Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit delivered satellites from three countries to space on Wednesday, its second successful rocket launch from an aircraft.
The company’s modified 747 jet, dubbed Cosmic Girl, took off from California’s Mojave Desert, carrying the 21-meter rocket under its left wing. Once the plane flew over the Pacific near the Channel Islands, the LauncherOne rocket lifted off, then triggered its engine to head into space. The fall occurred at an altitude of about 37,000 feet (11,000 meters).
Camera views showed the bundle of seven small satellites at the end of the second floor, against the curve of the blue Earth. The satellites come from the US Department of Defense, the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the Polish company SatRevolution, which is working on the establishment of an Earth observation constellation.
Virgin Orbit later declared success, claiming the satellites were in the right orbit.
Branson – whose company Virgin Galactic is set to launch paying customers to the edge of space – planted a kiss on the cheek of Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart once the satellites reached orbit.
“It’s a pinch moment for yourself,” Branson said. “Cheers! Well done everyone.”
In a later interview with The Associated Press, Branson declined to say whether he would participate in Virgin Galactic’s next test flight in space – or the one after as originally planned. The company is planning three more test flights of its rocket this summer and fall before taking on paying passengers next year.
“All I can say is when the engineers tell me I can go to space, I’m ready, fit and healthy to go,” Branson told the AP. “Then we’ll see.”
Virgin Orbit sent its first batch of satellites into orbit in January; the 10 NASA-sponsored satellites were designed and built by universities. A flight demonstration last year failed.
Virgin Orbit said its air launch system can put satellites into orbit in a relatively short time, compared to the more traditional way of launching rockets from the ground. Branson hopes to make satellite launches “almost routine” from Mojave Air and Spaceport.
The company’s next launch is slated for this fall, according to Hart.
Branson named Wednesday’s Tubular Bells mission after the music made famous in the 1973 horror film “The Exorcist”. It was the first album released by Virgin Records.
Hours later, SpaceX launched a rocket from Cape Canaveral, carrying 88 mini satellites to a rare polar orbit.