LauncherOne

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LauncherOne
LauncherOne Diagram.svg
LauncherOne diagram
FunctionAir-launched orbital launch vehicle
ManufacturerVirgin Orbit
Country of originUnited States
Project costUS$700 million[1]
Cost per launchUS$12 million[2]
Size
HeightApprox. 21.3 m (70 ft)[3]
MassApprox. 30 tons
Stages2;[3] potentially: 3[4]
Capacity
Payload to 500 km SSO[3]
Mass300 kg (660 lb)
Payload to 230 km SSO
Mass500 kg (1,100 lb)
Associated rockets
ComparableElectron, Vector-H, Falcon 1
Launch history
StatusActive
Launch sites
Total launches2
Success(es)1
Failure(s)1
First flight25 May 2020
Last flight17 January 2021
First stage
Diameter1.8 m (5 ft 11 in)[6][3]
EnginesNewtonThree (N3)
ThrustVacuum: 326.8 kN (73,500 lbf)
Burn timeApprox. 180 seconds
FuelRP-1/LOX
Second stage
Diameter1.5 m (4 ft 11 in)[6]
EnginesNewtonFour (N4)
ThrustVacuum: 22.2 kN (5,000 lbf)[7]
Burn timeApprox. 360 seconds
FuelRP-1/LOX

LauncherOne is a two-stage orbital launch vehicle developed and flown by Virgin Orbit that began operational flights in 2021, after being in development from 2007 to 2020. It is an air-launched rocket, designed to carry smallsat payloads of up to 300 kg (660 lb) into Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO),[3] following air launch from a carrier aircraft at high altitude. The rocket is carried to the upper atmosphere on a modified Boeing 747-400, named Cosmic Girl, and released over the Pacific Ocean. Initial work on the program was done by Virgin Galactic, another Virgin Group subsidiary, before a separate entity— Virgin Orbit—was formed in 2017 to complete development and operate the launch service provider business as a separate entity from the passenger-carrying Virgin Galactic business.

The first successful flight was on 17 January 2021, which delivered a payload of 10 CubeSats to low Earth orbit (LEO).[8] LauncherOne was the first all liquid-fuelled air-launched orbital rocket.[9] A previous test flight was unsuccessful on 25 May 2020, when the rocket failed to reach space.[10]

From 2007–2015, Virgin had intended LauncherOne to be a somewhat smaller vehicle with a 200 kg (440 lb) payload to low-Earth orbit. In 2015, Virgin modified the vehicle design to better target their intended market, and increased the vehicle payload capacity to 300 kg (660 lb) launched to a 500 km (310 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit, suitable for CubeSats and small payloads. Virgin Orbit is targeting a launch price around US$12 million for the rocket.[2]

History[edit]

Virgin Galactic began working on the LauncherOne concept in 2007,[11] and the technical specifications were first described in some detail in late 2009.[12] The LauncherOne configuration was proposed to be an expendable, two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket air-launched from a White Knight Two carrier aircraft.[13] This would make it a similar configuration to that used by Orbital Sciences' Pegasus, or a smaller version of the StratoLaunch air-launched rocket system.

By 2012, several commercial customers had signed early contracts for launches signaling demand-side support for new small commercial-oriented launch vehicles. These included GeoOptics, Skybox Imaging, Spaceflight Services, and Planetary Resources. Both Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems were at the time reported to be developing satellite buses "optimized to the design of LauncherOne".[14][15] In October 2012, Virgin announced that LauncherOne would be designed so that it could place 200 kg (440 lb) in Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).[16] Virgin planned at the time to market the 200 kg (440 lb) payload delivery to Sun-synchronous orbit for under US$10 million per mission,[14] while the maximum payload for low Earth orbit (LEO) missions would be somewhat larger at 500 kg (1,100 lb).[17]

Under plans announced in 2012, the second stage was to be powered by NewtonOne, a 16 kN (3,600 lbf) thrust engine, and the first stage by a scaled-up version called NewtonTwo, with 211 kN (47,000 lbf) of thrust. Design and construction of the first engines was completed by 2014. NewtonOne was tested up to a full-duration burn of five minutes. NewtonTwo made several short-duration firings by early 2014.[17] Ultimately, however, neither NewtonOne nor NewtonTwo would be used on LauncherOne.

In 2015, Virgin Galactic established a 150,000 sq ft (14,000 m2; 1.4 ha) research, development, and manufacturing center for LauncherOne at the Long Beach Airport.[18] The company reported in March 2015, that they were on schedule to begin test flights of LauncherOne with its NewtonThree engine by the end of 2016,[19] but they did not achieve that objective.

On 25 June 2015, the company signed a contract with OneWeb Ltd. for 39 satellite launches for its satellite constellation with an option for an additional 100 launches,[20] but in 2018 OneWeb canceled all but four, prompting a lawsuit from Virgin Orbit.[21] OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020.[22]

News reports in September 2015 indicated that the heavier payload of 200 kg (440 lb) was to be achieved by longer fuel tanks and use of the recently qualified NewtonThree engine, but this also meant that the Virgin-developed carrier aircraft White Knight Two would no longer be able to lift the rocket to launch altitude, so in December 2015, Virgin announced a change to the carrier plane for LauncherOne to carry the heavier payload. The carrier aircraft subsequently was changed to a used Boeing 747-400,[23] Cosmic Girl, previously operated by Virgin Galactic's sister company, Virgin Atlantic, and purchased outright by Virgin Group from Boeing upon the expiration of that airframe's lease. The 747 will allow a larger LauncherOne to carry the heavier payloads. The modification work on the company's 747 was expected to be completed in 2016, to be followed by orbital test launches of the rocket in 2017.[24][25][26]

It was further announced in December 2015 that the revised LauncherOne would utilize the larger NewtonThree rocket engine on the booster stage, with the NewtonFour powering the second stage.[24] NewtonThree was to be a 260–335 kN (58,000–75,000 lbf)-thrust engine, and began hot-fire testing by March 2015.[19][27] The NewtonFour engine would power the second stage. NewtonThree generate 326.8 kN (73,500 lbf) of thrust while NewtonFour deliver 26.5 kN (6,000 lbf) to the second stage and is capable of multiple restarts.[28]

On 2 March 2017, Virgin Galactic announced that its 200-member LauncherOne team was being spun off into a new company called Virgin Orbit.[29] A subsidiary company of Virgin Orbit called Vox Space was created to carry out business which require strict security requirements.[30][31] As of 2017, the company planned to fly approximately twice a month by 2020.[32]

In September 2017, the first test flights of LauncherOne were delayed to 2018.[32] By June 2018, the Virgin Orbit captive carry flight testing campaign for LauncherOne, including a planned drop test of an unfueled rocket, was licensed to begin in July 2018, and could run for up to six months.[28]

In the event, no LauncherOne test flights occurred in 2018 and were delayed further, to December 2019, with only the carrier aircraft beginning to fly in 2018. The first three test flights of Cosmic Girl, including the pylon but not the rocket, happened on 23, 25 and 27 August 2018.[33][34] A high-speed taxi test, with a rocket mounted beneath the aircraft, took place in early November 2018.[35] The aircraft flew its first test flight with both pylon and rocket attached on 18 November 2018.[36][37]

Flights[edit]

Cosmic Girl carrying LauncherOne during the first successful flight in January 2021.

The maiden flight of LauncherOne took place on 25 May 2020. The flight failed a few seconds after the ignition of the rocket due to a premature shutdown of the first stage engine, caused by a break in a propellant feed line,[38] and the rocket did not reach space. The launch failure was attributed to a failure of a high-pressure liquid oxygen fuel line in the NewtonThree engine. Due to the failure, oxygen was no longer supplied to the engine and the flight was terminated. The issue with the fuel line was addressed by strengthening the broken components.[39][40]

The second launch took place on 17 January 2021, and was the first to successfully reach orbit.[8] The rocket deployed 10 CubeSats for NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites mission (ELaNa 20).[41] Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 18:38 UTC. The aircraft launched the LauncherOne rocket at 19:39 UTC.[9] The launch occurred at the altitude of 10,700 m (35,100 ft).[42]

On 17 January 2021, both NewtonThree and NewtonFour performed as expected.[41] During launch, NewtonFour fired twice; once to inject the second stage and the payloads into a transfer orbit, and again to circularize the orbit.[41][43]

Design[edit]

LauncherOne is a two-stage air-launched vehicle. The rocket has a diameter of 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) for the first stage and 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) for the second stage and payload fairing.[6]

In October 2019, the company announced plans to develop a three-stage variant that would be capable of launching 100 kg to the Moon, 70 kg to Venus, or 50 kg to Mars.[4]

Engines[edit]

The Newton rocket engines burn RP-1 and liquid oxygen. The first stage uses a single NewtonThree engine, while the upper stage uses a single vacuum-optimised NewtonFour engine.[6]

Intended usage[edit]

LauncherOne is designed to launch a 300 kg (660 lb) payload to a 500 km (310 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), suitable for CubeSats and small payloads.[44][45] Virgin Orbit has also announced the ability of LauncherOne to send payloads into heliocentric orbit for flybys of Mars, Venus or asteroids.[46]

Launch sites[edit]

Mojave Air and Space Port

Virgin Orbit integrate payloads at their headquarters in Long Beach, California.[3]

LauncherOne is launched from its Cosmic Girl Boeing 747-400 carrier, attached to a pylon on the aircraft's left wing, and released over the ocean at a location depending on the desired orbital inclination. This process avoids typical delays for ground launches due to weather and upper-level winds.[3] William Pomerantz of Virgin Orbit has stated that any airport that can support a Boeing 747 may be used, subject to local legislation.[47]

As of 2021, the carrier plane has always lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, United States. The company also has plans to use other airports such as Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA and Newquay Airport in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Other proposed launch sites include Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport in Hawaii, José Aponte de la Torre Airport in Puerto Rico,[5] Oita Airport in Japan, and Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.[48]

Past launches[edit]

Flight no. Date and time
(UTC)
Launch site Payload Orbit Customer Outcome
1 25 May 2020,
19:50[49]
Mojave Air and Space Port, California Launch Demo with "inert test payload" (Starshine 4) and INTERNSAT (intended to remain attached to the upper stage). Low Earth Virgin Orbit Failure
Flight test, maiden orbital flight. Launch failure after successful release and ignition of the NewtonThree engines on the first stage. A high-pressure propellant line broke causing LOx to stop flowing into the engine. Issue was addressed through strengthening engine components that broke.[40][39] Prior to failure aerodynamics including fins acted as expected.[39]
2 17 January 2021
19:39:00[50]
Mojave Air and Space Port, California ELaNa-20 payloads: CACTUS-1, CAPE-3, EXOCUBE-2, MiTEE, PICS 1, PICS 2, PolarCube, Q-PACE, RadFXSat-2, TechEdSat-7.[51] Low Earth NASA Success
Dedicated launch of 10 NASA sponsored CubeSats. First successful launch of LauncherOne and the first fully liquid-fueled air-launched rocket to reach orbit.

Future launches[edit]

Flight no. Date and time
(UTC)
Launch site Payload Orbit Customer
2021 Mojave A&M 1–8[52] Low Earth Aerial & Maritime / GomSpace
AIS ship tracking
2021 Mojave SpaceBelt 1[53] Low Earth Cloud Constellation
Communications
2021[54] Kennedy[5] STP (TBD) Low Earth U.S. Air Force
Technology demonstration
TBD TBD OneWeb satellites Low Earth OneWeb
OneWeb initially had a contract for 39 LauncherOne flights but has cancelled all but four of them. Each flight would carry one or two satellites to serve as constellation replenishment.[55]

Launch statistics[edit]