|Virgin Orbit LauncherOne
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
 200 km x 28.5 deg
 500 km x 98.6 deg
||0.500 t 
0.300 t 
|747-400 "Cosmic Girl" " Stg 1 (NewtonThree)
+ Stg 2 (NewtonFour) + PLF
* LEO: Low Earth
|Propellant Mass (tonnes)
|Empty Mass (tonnes)
|Total Mass (tonnes)
||1 x NewtonThree
||1 x NewtonFour
|ISP (SL sec)
|ISP (Vac sec)
|Burn Time (sec)
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]
01/17/21 LauncherOne 02 Launch Demo 2 ELaNa-20 0.286 MO LEO
 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.
VA = Vandenberg AFB, California
WI = Wallops Island, Virginia
CC = Cape Canaveral, Florida
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
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