Investing in Space

Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit gets one step closer to launching satellites from a 747 airplane

Key Points
  • Virgin Orbit flew its modified aircraft above the Mojave Desert in California and dropped a test rocket from tens of thousands of feet in the air.
  • The company plans to use the rocket to launch satellites to space.
  • CEO Dan Hart told CNBC that he expects Virgin Orbit's first launch "hopefully will be before the end of the summer."
Virgin Orbit drops a Launcher One rocket from under the wing of its modified Boeing 747 in a key test before the company's first launch.
Virgin Orbit | gif by @thesheetztweetz

Sir Richard Branson's other space company Virgin Orbit completed a key test of its Boeing 747-based launch system on Wednesday.

Virgin Orbit flew its modified aircraft above the Mojave Desert in California and dropped a dummy rocket from tens of thousands of feet in the air, to test one of the key parts of its launch system. The company plans to use the rocket to launch satellites to space, with the "air launch" system giving a schedule flexibility that Virgin Orbit touts over more common ground-based launch systems like those of SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

"This drop test is the final major demonstration in a development program that's been going on for four and a half years," CEO Dan Hart told CNBC before the test. "It's a huge deal ... separating developmental work from the beginning of operations for us and getting to orbit."

Instead of a payload, the rocket for the drop test has a hunk of metal in its nose. And, instead of fuel, the test rocket is carrying a load of water and antifreeze to simulate weight.

Hart said that the first rocket the company plans to launch to space is undergoing final checks at Virgin Orbit's factory in Long Beach, California. With checks on that rocket will take place in the weeks following the drop test in the desert, with Hart forecasting Virgin Orbit's first launch "hopefully will be before the end of the summer."

"We're poised to be able to launch our next rocket, which would be our first paying customer, two months, maybe 10 weeks, after the first flight," Hart added.

@Virgin Orbit tweet

Virgin Orbit is a spin-off of Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic. While both of the companies launch spacecraft from the air – rather than the ground – that's where the similarities end. Virgin Orbit uses a former commercial jet and will launch satellites the size of refrigerators to orbit, while Virgin Galactic has a one-of-a-kind aircraft and plans to send paying tourists on 10 minute rides at the edge of space.

Virgin Orbit's emphasis on launch speed and flexibility

Rockets the size of skyscrapers, like those of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), get attention for there size but smaller rockets like Virgin Orbit are a recent focus for dozens of launch companies. Small rockets can save customers months of time getting to space. Additionally, Virgin Orbit believes it can help avoid other scheduling delays, such as weather, with its air launch system.

Launching from the air is not a new way of doing things, as Northrop Grumman has a system called Pegasus that first began flying in 1990. The Pegasus rocket launches from a modified Lockheed Martin L-1011 aircraft. But Northrop Grumman's system costs about $40 million per launch. By comparison, Virgin Orbit prices a flight on one of its LauncherOne rockets between $10 million and $15 million, according to Hart.

Virgin Orbit flew its modified Boeing 747 airplane "Cosmic Girl" with the company's LauncherOne rocket under its wing for the first time on November 18, 2018.
Virgin Orbit

Once its done testing, Virgin Orbit has more than a dozen launches lined up. Hart emphasized that a majority of those launches are for spacecraft from private companies, with only one for NASA and another for the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Unit.

"It's kind of a statement of what's happening in the market," Hart said. "In small satellites and small launch the commercial world is actually leading."

But Virgin Orbit is already speaking with the U.S. military about the applications of its technology. Branson met with Air Force leadership in February to discuss Virgin Orbit's capabilities. Following the meeting, Air Force acquisitions head Dr. Will Roper said he was "very excited about small launch," because "if you lose a satellite" you can "put another one up at the time you need it."

Hart said that Virgin Orbit's goal is to be able to launch a rocket as quickly as every "four to six hours," saying the company's "turn around time will be set by the time it takes to connect the rocket to the airplane and fuel up." If Virgin Orbit can launch rockets that quickly, the Air Force would be keen to utilize the technology to replace disable or destroyed satellites.

"The government is really eyeballing it and seeing opportunities and they're in the process of adopting small satellite constellations and responsive launch in the overall national security architecture," Hart said.

Virgin Orbit has six rockets in its factory right now, Hart said, and it can scale "to get up beyond 20" per year. The LauncherOne rockets are expendable, meaning they won't be recovered or reused after launch, and Hart said Virgin Orbit is focused on getting "the production cost of expendable down to very, very low." SpaceX has made re-using rockets a key part of its business but Elon Musk's space company remains the exception, rather than the rule, of what happens to a rocket after a launch.