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Virgin Orbit launches first satellite mission after merger with SPAC

The Virgin Galactic spinoff company Virgin Orbit launched its third satellite into orbit around Earth in the afternoon, lofting seven tiny satellites into orbit. The payload included three small satellites from the companies SatRevolution and Spire Global, as well as a variety of research satellites for the Department of Defense.

Virgin Orbit’s stock began trading publicly for the first time on the New York Stock Exchange less than a week ago. The Virgin Orbit Company announced in August that it intends to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Virgin Orbit is one of three small rocket launch companies planning to follow this trend in 2021. During Friday’s Nasdaq opening, the company CEO Dan Hart rang the bell as a model of the company’s primary rocket, LauncherOne, was displayed in Times Square.

The Virgin Orbit rocket company is one of many that have emerged in recent decades, focusing specifically on the launch of small to medium-sized satellites. Its method for launching these satellites into space is a little different from its competitors.

The LauncherOne rocket will launch vertically from underneath the wing of a refurbished Boeing 747, the Cosmic Girl, instead of from ground level. LauncherOne will be taken to about 35,000 feet altitude by the plane, where it is released.

As LauncherOne is in mid-air, its main engine ignites and propels its payload the remaining distance into Earth’s orbit.

Virgil Orbit launched on the same day as SpaceX launched its second rocket of the year from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in which the company sent a crop of small satellites into orbit on its Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX’s Transporter-3 launch, called Transporter-3, launched 105 small satellites into orbit, deploying each one individually. Small satellite manufacturers can launch their payloads into space through a rocket rideshare flight, sometimes referred to as a rocket ride.

SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 rocket can launch multiple small satellites at once, similar to a cosmic carpool, because of its larger capacity than a smaller rocket like LauncherOne. Through its Smallsat Rideshare Program, SpaceX plans to launch at least three dedicated rockets a year.

There are downsides to rocket ridesharing, however. It is common for small satellite manufacturers to wait until there are enough satellites packed onto one rocket before launching. There are also some logistical concerns that can arise when so many satellites are launched at the same time.

Virgin Orbit is a dedicated small launch provider that can tailor its missions to just a few customers and, ultimately, provide a faster route to launch.

It is reported that Virgin Orbit added Spire’s satellite to today’s flight relatively late in the day. “We got them on board in just under two weeks,” Virgin Orbit’s COO, Tony Gingiss, told a press conference before the launch. Within 24 hours of signing the contract, the fairing – the rocket’s nose cone – was already in place.

If Virgin Orbit is to provide its customers with a rapid path to space, it will need to raise its launch cadence. Currently, Virgin Orbit launches on average every six months. However, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart says the company plans six launches this year, which would double the launch cadence. 

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