Virgin Orbit has resurrected an old idea: launching a rocket from an airplane in flight. The formula is experiencing renewed interest with the explosion of the market for small satellites, particularly for military use.
Final preparations were underway at Britain’s Cornwall Airport Newquay spaceport on Monday for the launch of small satellites thanks to a rocket dropped by a Boeing 747. A first for Western Europe, since no satellite has ever been launched from this part of the world.
Founded in 2017, Virgin Orbit, part-owned by billionaire Richard Branson, plans to launch nine small satellites over the Atlantic from a LauncherOne rocket attached under the wing of a modified Boeing 747, nicknamed « Cosmic Girl ». Once the correct altitude is reached, around 10,000 meters, the plane releases the 21-meter rocket, which starts its own engine to push itself into space and place its cargo in orbit. Established in Long Beach (USA), Virgin Orbit has already carried out three launches from the USA with its LauncherOne, two of which were successful.
The idea of dropping a rocket from a carrier aircraft in flight is far from new. It was considered quite quickly from the first decades of the conquest of space and was even used for the American hypersonic rocket plane X-15which made it possible to explore suborbital flight techniques in the sixties.
According to its proponents, this airborne launch system should make it possible to place small satellites in low orbit at a lower cost.
According to its proponents, this airborne launch system should make it possible to place small satellites in low orbit at a lower cost. Another advantage: no need for a large Cap Kennedy or Kourou style launch site, a simple airport runway may suffice. However, despite its apparent advantages, the formula never really caught on.
But that could change. The Virgin Orbit system offers Europe options for launching smaller satellites, weighing between 300 and 500 kg, at a critical time, after the war in Ukraine cut off access to its use of Russian Soyuz vehicles. Europe is also temporarily deprived of its small Vega-C rocket, following a failed launch in December, and its heavy Ariane 6 rocket has also experienced delays.
However, the Ukrainian conflict has highlighted the importance of the use for tactical military purposes of small satellites that can be deployed in low orbit in much shorter time than the largest machines. A possibility that specialists call « Responsive Launch ». Virgin Orbit argued last year that Britain’s Royal Air Force was carrying out exercises to demonstrate the value of such « reactive launches ». Experts say the technology gives greater resiliency or redundancy and has dual civilian and military potential, which could help spread the cost.
Like other European countries, Great Britain bets on the development of space start-ups to lower launch costs. The country already has a large space industry employing 47,000 people, who build more satellites than anywhere outside the United States.
For his part, Richard Branson created another space company, Virgin Galactic, which aims to send tourists into space to experience weightlessness some 80 km above the Earth’s surface. But the company hasn’t performed spaceflight since June 2021.