MOJAVE — Virgin Orbit successfully launched seven satellites into orbit, on Thursday, marking the launch company’s third commercial mission.
The company’s “flying launch pad,” a former Virgin Atlantic airliner known as Cosmic Girl, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, at about 1:40 p.m., heading west to the launch point over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles south of the Channel Islands.
At the call of “Release, release, release,” the aircraft dropped the LauncherOne rocket from where it was carried aloft beneath a wing; the rocket then ignited and propelled the satellite payloads into orbit about 500 kilometers (310.7 miles) above the Earth, according to a Virgin Orbit release.
“Our customers are starting to hear back from their satellites that are checking in from orbit — and for us, that’s what success looks like,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said, in a statement released, Thursday evening. “It’s a thrill for our team that this mission included our first repeat customers as well as our first ‘last minute ticket’ customers and reached an orbit that no one had ever reached from the West Coast before, all of which confirms the team’s ability to provide top tier launch service anywhere, anytime.
“On top of that, we flew through weather and a cloud layer that would have grounded any other launch I’ve worked on in my career, something only made possible by air-launch and our incredible team. We can say with confidence that in this new era of regular, frequent, successful missions, we can help our customers and partners use space technology to advance human knowledge and open space for good.”
The mission, called “Above the Clouds,” launched several small, research and development satellites for the US Department of Defense, from multiple government agencies with experiments in space-based communications and in-space navigation, according to a Virgin Orbit news release.
The Department of Defense manifest also includes a university payload sponsored by NASA.
Polish company SatRevolution also sent two nanosatellites into orbit, one of which will join two similar Earth-observing ones launched, in June, by Virgin Orbit. The other is a technology demonstrator for water-fueled thrusters for space travel.
A small satellite from Spire Global that is designed to study micro space debris in Low Earth Orbit was a late addition to the manifest, in December.
In keeping with the company’s practice of naming missions after Virgin Records’ recordings, this launch was dubbed “Above the Clouds,” the fifth track on Gang Starr’s 1998 album Moment of Truth.
For its test flights and all launch missions so far, Virgin Orbit has used the Mojave Air and Space Port as its starting and ending point for launch missions that take place over the Pacific Ocean off the California Coast. The system is capable of launching from virtually anywhere with a long enough runway.
The airplane carries the LauncherOne rocket beneath a wing to a launch altitude of about 35,000 feet, at which point it is released, the rocket motor is lit and then it carries its payload into orbit.