Is it just one more doomed to fail Virgin enterprise or a determined effort to bypass so much of what Elon Musk and others have already achieved?
After the failure of Virgin Galactic, which seems to have vanished quietly into the woodwork after a disastrous accident killed the pilots of its space plane, Virgin Orbit, a 747 based rocket launcher business, is set to test its abilities.
Virgin are always keen try something different, but it doesn’t always work. Perhaps this time, with so many enthusiastic engineers in the US working on it, it might happen.
Using the old G-VWOW name Cosmic Girl as the platform, Virgin Orbit plans to launch a high altitude satellite carrying rocket into space from under the 744, deploy the satellite, and have the aircraft return to the ground for quick re-load.
The rocket is expendable.
The idea is to utilise the microsat revolution as a business platform. Companies and states are looking to put dozens, if not hundreds of small satellites into near-earth orbit, rather than expensive large long-term units. The smaller units are cheap to manufacturer and expendable, and in many cases (but by no means all) will have the advantage of burning up at end of life rather than adding yet more to the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk orbiting Earth already.
The launcher will be able to send up to 500Kg of satellites into a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. Many of the long-life large satellites operate as far out as 22-30,000Km.
Will it make a viable business? Who knows. It’s a different way of doing the same thing and the end result isn’t a unique product, with Space-X, Boeing and others all aiming for the same market.
Either way you can be sure the PR hype will greatly outweigh the reality, at least to start with.
Virgin Orbit 744 flight test video.