Space Launch Report:  Virgin Orbit LauncherOne Data Sheet
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launcher1a.jpg (18503 bytes)Virgin Orbit LauncherOne

Vehicle Configurations

Vehicle Components

Launch Log

LauncherOne Illustration

Virgin Galactic, part of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, began development of its LauncherOne system in mid-2012, after preliminary study of the idea beginning in 2007. The company's initial goal was to be able to boost 120 kg to sun sychronous low earth orbit for less than $10 million. The company initially contemplated use of the White Knight Two aircraft that was built for the SpaceShipTwo program to drop-launch the LauncherOne rocket.

Early development focused on rocket engines for the two stages and on composite propellant tanks. By mid-2015, the development team moved into a 150,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California. The group had successfully test fired its 73,500 lbf thrust "NewtonThree" first stage engine and had tested the gas generator for the 5,000 lbf "NewtonFour" second stage engine. Both engines were pump-fed LOX/RP-1 types. Earlier pressure-fed "NewtonOne" and "NewtonTwo" engines, capable of 47,500 lbf and 3,500 lbf thrust respectively, had been prevously tested by the company, but abandoned in favor of the pump-fed designs. These engines had been developed under DARPA's ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access) program.

Engine testing took place at Mojave, using Virgin Galactic's "Necker" test stands. During a typical flight, the first stage engine would fire for about three minutes. The second stage engine would perform multiple burns for a total of nearly six minutes.

The decision to go with pump-fed engines, combined with a decision to bypass White Knite in favor of a larger aircraft, increased payload to 200 kg by mid-2015.


launcher1b.jpg (12337 bytes)LauncherOne Cutaway Illustration

On 25 June 2015, Virgin Galactic won a contract to orbit 39 satellites for OneWeb Limited. On October 14, 2015, Virgin Galactic won a NASA Venture Class Launch Services program contract for a single launch that would carry about one dozen microsatellites to orbit. The company also won a contract from Sky and Space Global.

LauncherOne's filament-wound composite cryogenic oxidizer tanks were cutting-edge. Composite tanks of this type had never flown on orbital missions. The LOX tanks would be coated with spray-on foam insulation to minimize LOX boiloff during the ferry phase to the drop zone. First stage diameter was 72 inches. The second stage was 50 inches in diameter. The 50 inch diameter payload fairing offered about 12 feet of internal length.

On December 3, 2015, the company announced that a 747-400 aircraft named "Cosmic Girl" would be used to drop-launch the LauncherOne rocket from 35,000 foot altitudes. The 747 had previously flown for Virgin Atlantic.     Modifications of the 747 began to allow it to carry LauncherOne on a new pylon under its port wing, inboard of the engines, and to provide updated communications systems to allow it to serve as a "flying launch site".

In March, 2017, Virgin Galactic announced that it was forming a new company, Virgin Orbit, to handle the LauncherOne program. The company would be led by President Dan Hart, previously Vice President of Boeing Government Satellite Systems.

By early 2017, LauncherOne performance was listed at 300 kg to a 500 km sun synchronous orbit or 500 kg to a 200 km x 28.5 deg low earth orbit. Virgin Orbit was planning for initial operations to be based in Mojave, California. There, a Level 8 clean room payload integration facility was located at the "Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar" (FAITH) that also served Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo program. Plans called for Cosmic Girl to ferry LauncherOne and payload to launch sites on the east or west coasts.

LauncherOne Flight 1    Virgin OrbitLauncherOne Failure

Virgin Orbit LauncherOne Launch Demo Ignition (Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne suffered an inuagural Launch Demo failure after drop release from Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl 747 carrier aircraft off the California coast on May 25, 2020. The failure occurred moments after the 21.3 meter long, two-stage rocket's LOX/Kerosene NewtonThree engine ignited, sometime around 19:53 UTC at an altitude of about 10.7 km just south of the Channel Islands, about 160 km southwest of Long Beach. Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port with LauncherOne less than an hour before the drop. Virgin Orbit announced that the release from the aircraft was "clean", that "LauncherOne maintained stability after release", and that the company's NewtonThree engine ignited. An "anomaly" then occurred "early in first stage flight". Cosmic Girl returned safetly to Mojave.

On May 27, Virgin Orbit provided more details, noting that the flight was nominal for about 9 seconds after the drop. Propellant settling thrusters fired about three seconds after drop, followed two seconds later by NewtonThree main engine ignition. The rocket initially pitched down, then began to pull up, responding to its flight control system. About three or four seconds after ignition, for reasons still to be determined, the engine stopped producing thrust.

After igniting five seconds after the drop, NewtonThree was to produce 33,339 kgf thrust for about 2 min 55 sec. The second stage NewtonFour engine would then have made about 2,268 kgf thrust for 6 min 7 sec to accelerate itself and dummy payload either to a transfer orbit or to near-orbital velocity. NewtonFour would have restarted 31 min 26 sec after the drop, firing for about 15 seconds to reach its insertion orbit.

Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit LauncherOne development has lasted five years. The effort included the creation and testing of the rocket engines and stages, along with installing and perfecting the drop-launch system

LauncherOne Success

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne reached orbit for the first time on January 17, 2021 after a 19:39 UTC drop release from Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl 747 carrier aircraft off the California coast. Ten NASA cubesats rode the innovative, 25.855 tonne rocket to orbit during its Launch Demo 2 flight. The success came about eight months after the first LauncherOne failed shortly after its LOX/Kerosene NewtonThree engine ignited.

This time, the 21.3 meter long, two-stage rocket's first stage engine ignited cleanly and completed its 33.34 tonne-thrust, roughly 3-minute burn. The second stage NewtonFour engine then provided 2.27 tonnes of thrust for about 5 minutes 56 seconds to reach a transfer orbit. After a coast to apogee, NewtonFour restarted for roughly 4.3 seconds at about T+55 minutes 46 seconds to reach its 492 x 518 km x 60.7 deg insertion orbit. After the Cubesats separated, the second stage performed a final orbit lowering burn or maneuver, ending up in a 415 x 504 km orbit. The cubesats were part of the 20th Educational Launch of NanoSatellites (ELaNa 20) mission. Total deployed payload mass was 23.86 kg.

It was the first successful orbital launch by a liquid-fueled, air-drop-launched rocket.


Vehicle Configurations

  LEO
Payload
(metric tons)
[1] 200 km x 28.5 deg
[2] 500 km x 98.6 deg
Configuration LIftoff
Length
(meters)
Liftoff
Mass
(metric tons)
LauncherOne 0.500 t [1]
0.300 t [2]
747-400 "Cosmic Girl" " Stg 1 (NewtonThree) + Stg 2 (NewtonFour) + PLF 21.33 m ~25.8 t

* LEO:  Low Earth Orbit

Vehicle Components

  Stg 1 Stg 2
Payload
Fairing
Diameter (m) 1.623 m 1.27 m 1.27 m
Length (m) m m ~4 m
Propellant Mass (tonnes) t t  
Empty Mass (tonnes) t t  
Total Mass (tonnes) t t t
Engine 1 x NewtonThree 1 x NewtonFour  
Engine Mfgr Virgin Orbit Virgin Orbit  
Fuel Kerosene Kerosene  
Oxidizer LOX LOX  
Thrust
(SL tons)
33.339 t    
Thrust
(Vac tons)
t avg 2.27 t  
ISP (SL sec) - -  
ISP (Vac sec) s s  
Burn Time (sec) ~180 sec ~360 sec  
No. Engines 9 1  

LauncherOne Launch Log


                        LAUNCHERONE ORBITAL SPACE LAUNCH LOG

DATE     VEHICLE           ID      PAYLOAD                 MASS(t) SITE*      ORBIT*
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
05/25/20 LauncherOne       01      Launch Demo                     MO        [FTO][1]
01/17/21 LauncherOne       02      Launch Demo 2 ELaNa-20   0.286  MO         LEO
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
[1] Failed shortly after Stg 1 ignition after drop from Cosmic Girl SW of 
     Long Beach, CA.  Launch Demo planned to LEO including two Stg 2 burns.

 Site Code:

VA = Vandenberg AFB, California
WI = Wallops Island, Virginia
CC = Cape Canaveral, Florida 

 Orbit Code:

EEO/M = Molynia (12-hr) Elliptical Earth Orbit
FTO = Failed to Orbit
FSO = Failed Suborbital
GTO = Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit
GTO+ = Supersynchronous or High Perigee Transfer Orbit
GTO- = Subsynchronous Transfer Orbit
GTOi = Inclined GTO
GEO = Geosynchronous Orbit
HCO = Heliocentric (solar) Orbit
HTO = High Earth Transfer Orbit
LEO = Low Earth Orbit
LEO/S = Sun Synchronous Low Earth Orbit
LEO/P = Polar Low Earth Orbit
MEO = Medium Earth Orbit
MTO = Medium Earth Transfer Orbit 
SUB = Suborbital
xxx

References

Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic Web Sites, LauncherOne Updates and Launch Vehicle Description, 2015-17.
LauncherOne Service Guide Version 0.2, Virgin Galactic, March 25, 2016.

 Last Update:  January 17, 2021

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