Virgin Orbit – Solving the small satellite launch problem

By Freddie Smith

5th April 2022

40% of all small satellites launched in the last 10 years went up in 2020. But there's a growing traffic jam! Demand for launch slots far exceeds supply. Virgin Orbit's air-launch system offers a novel approach towards solving this problem...

  • Launchers
  • Spaceports
  • Small satellites power all kinds of economic activity. They observe the ever-changing earth and provide meaningful insights across many industries. They'll connect billions of people to the internet, in turn improving their economic opportunities. Companies are stepping in to this opportunity. The demand for small satellite launch slots is higher than ever. Virgin Orbit has the potential to solve this problem.

    How does Virgin Orbit’s technology work?

    It consists of two main parts: a converted Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl and a rocket named LauncherOne. Cosmic Girl has a pylon, (a structure on the wing of the plane) which LauncherOne, the rocket, mounts to.

    Cosmic Girl then takes off from an airport and flies over a nearby sea or ocean. It climbs to 35,000 feet (10.6km) then the pilot angles the plane upwards 27 degrees and releases the rocket.

    Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl and accompanying rocket, LauncherOne

    Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne. Image courtesy of Virgin Orbit.

    What are the benefits of air-launch methods?

    This launch method has many benefits:

    • Rockets need less propellant because the launch happens higher up in the atmosphere
    • Many launches per day could occur from the same launch vehicle
    • A fleet of launch vehicles could further increase the number of launches per day
    • Unlike ground-based rocket launches, weather conditions are less of a limiting factor
    • Launches could happen from any airport capable of handling Boeing 747s
    • Easier to place satellites into certain orbits. The launch vehicle isn't restricted to one ground-based location.
    Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl and accompanying rocket, LauncherOne after rocket release

    LauncherOne separation. Image courtesy of Virgin Orbit.

    What does this mean for the UK?

    UK-based launches from Spaceport Cornwall will start from summer 2022. Whilst Virgin Orbit is a US-based company, they're working with Spaceport Cornwall to bring launch capabilities to the UK. Adding air-launch capabilities from the UK will help many existing UK businesses.

    The UK already has a bustling satellite manufacturing scene. Adding launch capabilities would further develop the UK space economy. It will open up fresh opportunities for existing companies and startups alike.

    Furthermore, increased competition in the launch slot market should drive down price. As launch costs come down, new possibilities become viable in space. One such example is Wales-based Space Forge, who raised £7.6m in 2021. They're developing the concept of manufacturing in space.

    Virgin Orbit will launch Space Forge's first payload from Spaceport Cornwall in summer 2022.