Virgin Orbit is a private company, formed in 2017, to provide launch services for small satellites (LEO’s). The company is a spin-off from spaceflight company Virgin Galactic and is operating seperately within the Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit will use the company’s reusable LauncherOne system to air launch satellites from a high altitude.
Based in Long Beach, California USA, Virgin Orbit has more than 300 employees led by president Dan Hart, a former VP of government satellite systems at Boeing Space & Defense.
Virgin Orbit tries a different approach than its competitors. Rather than launching rockets from the ground, it will carry rockets (LauncherOne) to a high altitude attached to an airplane, a customized 747-400 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, which acts as a “flying launch pad.”
The reusable LauncherOne will take-off from there, enabling it to launch with less fuel and more flexibility compared to having to lift off from a stationary launch site.
The fact that LauncherOne is reusable and is essentially just a modified plane that doesn’t require special infrastructure will allow the company to offer relatively affordable rates, 10 million USD per flight. The air-launched LauncherOne will be able to carry 440 lbs. (200kgs) into standard sun-synchronous orbits, or more than 880 lbs. (400kgs) to low Earth orbit.
The maiden flight of LauncherOne took place on May 25th 2020. The flight failed a few seconds after the ignition of the rocket due to the premature shutdown of the first stage’s engine caused by a break in a propellant feed line, and the rocket did not reach space.
Virgin Galactic is part of the Virgin Group and is developing commercial spacecraft and aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists and suborbital launches for space science missions, by air launching from beneath a carrier airplane, a customized 747-400 aircraft called Cosmic Girl, which acts as a “flying launch pad.”
Virgin Galactic’s founder, Richard Branson, had initially suggested that he hoped to see a maiden flight SpaceShipTwo by the end of 2009, but this date has been delayed on a number of occasions, most seriously by the October 2014 in-flight loss of SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise that crashed in the Mojave Dessert.
LauncherOne uses a two-stage rocket to deliver small satellites (those weighing up to 660 lbs) to low-Earth orbit, after being deployed by a modified aircraft that takes off like a traditional jumbojet. The LauncherOne vehicle then deploys from a high altitude, reducing the fuel costs of launch and making it possible to deliver small payloads to space for as little as 12 million USD per launch.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Group
Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson (born 18 July 1950) is a British business magnate, investor, author and philanthropist. He founded the Virgin Group in the 1970’s, a conglomerate that controls more than 400 companies in various fields.
It all started with Virgin Records that Branson and Nik Powell founded in 1972 with money that they earned from their record store. They bought a country estate which they installed a residential recording studio, The Manor Studio. Branson leased the studio to multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield for his first album Tubular Bells that became a best-seller. Later on Virgin contracted artists like Seks Pistols, Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, XTC, UB40, Paula Abdul etc. to become the world’s largest independent record label.
In 1992 Branson sold his massively successful label for more than 1 billion USD to British consumer electronics and entertainment company Thorn EMI. Virgin Records was sold to finance Branson’s airline, Virgin Atlantic that he started in 1984 and Virgin Mobile that was founded in 1999.
In 2004 Branson formed the space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, to take paying passengers into suborbital space. Virgin Galactic plans to make flights available to the public with tickets priced at 200,000 USD using the Scaled Composites model 348 White Knight Two quadjet cargo aircraft. The spacecraft, a customized Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, is manufactured by The Spaceship Company, which was founded by Branson and aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan and is now solely owned by Virgin Galactic.
At present the Vrigin Group contains companies that serve the markets of, communications, banking, travel, and airline, entertainment, radio, sports and retail.
The parent company, Virgin Group Holdings, Ltd, is registered in the British Virgin Islands. Richard Branson and his family hold a £2.7 billion stake in this offshore, tax-free, tax haven company.
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