Virgin Orbit carries satellites to space for the first time

Virgin Orbit is gearing up for its second demonstration flight this weekend.

The spinoff from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture aims to launch payloads into space not with rocket liftoffs from the ground but by air-launching its LauncherOne rocket from the Cosmic Girl Boeing 747-400 aircraft at high altitude.

The goal is to increase the flexibility of where, when and how often small-satellite launches can take place.

LauncherOne had yet to release the satellites as of this writing, but Virgin said it had successfully crossed into space and entered orbit. The first demo ended abruptly after LauncherOne failed to ignite.

It’s a major milestone. NASA is backing this as part of its Venture Class Launch Services program meant to explore new (and hopefully lower-priced) methods of bringing payloads to space. While Virgin still has a way to go before it’s regularly offering its services, the success could reduce the costs of fielding satellites and provide an alternative when smaller straight-to-space rockets aren’t an option.

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