This January, Virgin Orbit successfully deployed a series of CubeSats into LEO, marking an important milestone in space industry development. Virgin uses an air-launch technology, also known as a horizontal launch system, that dates back to the 1990s. And, even though the tech is not new, Virgin Orbit became the first company to successfully commercialize this solution, making the launch cost lower and payload capacity higher than it used to be. The successful January flight proves that the company’s ready to move forward — perhaps even to launches from spaceport Cornwall in the UK.
Overview of LauncherOne flights: How Virgin’s Horizontal Launch Works
The latest LauncherOne flight of January 17 was not the first attempt to send a satellite to LEO. But, unlike other Virgin’s launches, this one was a 100% success. First, a modified Boeing plane successfully detached the LauncherOne rocket, attached to its wing, at an altitude of 35,000 feet. Then, the rocket ignited its engines and deployed a series of CubeSats into LEO.
US-based Virgin Orbit has proven its air-launch tech and declared its intention to launch from UK spaceport Cornwall. Will this partnership happen?
Virgin’s previous flight on May 25, 2020, was not as successful. Even though the rocket separated normally, it encountered a first-stage engine failure that resulted in a loss of the test payload. Virgin used the time between two launches to address this issue, and it looks that now the LauncherOne system is finally operational.
One of the main features that give Virgin Orbit a competitive edge is its low launch cost. Horizontal launches have been carried out since the 1990s, but Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets had a very high launch cost — $40 million, with a payload capacity of only 443 kg. Virgin did not significantly increase its system’s payload capacity (500 kg in LauncherOne’s case) but seriously reduced the air-launch cost to just $12 million. This figure allows talking about actually commercializing the horizontal launch tech from Virgin.
One of the reasons why Virgin has managed to reduce the cost is its use of liquid propellant instead of a solid one. LauncherOne runs on a combination of liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 — jet fuel used for vertical rocket launches since the 1960s. Even though the use of liquid propellant allows to reduce the launch cost, it also calls for extra caution. Since the rocket ignites its first stage next to a manned aircraft, the cost of an explosion would mean human lives. That is why the propellant has to remain cryogenic from the moment of loading up to the point of ignition.
Will Cornwall Be a Place for Virgin Orbit’s Launches?
Now that Virgin has proven its launch technology and declared the intention to launch from Cornwall, the UK and US will need to come up with a regulatory approval scheme. Even though Virgin already has a successful launch under its belt, LauncherOne tech is still potentially dangerous. Right now, Virgin only has permission to launch from California — even though its flexible and mobile launch technology allows using practically any airport that supports cargo plane take-off.
One more reason why Cornwall could be a great launchpad for Virgin is its proximity to the sea. The LauncherOne system can only be potentially damaging to the ground infrastructure if the failure occurs before the plane reaches the sea. In the case of Cornwall, this hazard is minimized.
Besides launch permission for Virgin Orbit, spaceport Cornwall will also need to address its own issues. Even though the public supports spaceport construction, the environmentalists have their concerns. Fortunately, a recent ecological assessment has proven that Virgin Orbit launches from Cornwall will account for only 0.1% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the area. However, there is still a matter of RP-1 releasing waste that affects the ozone layer.
As for the concerns about noise pollution, Cornwall residents’ doubts are unjustified. Virgin’s modified aircraft causes the same noise as any other cargo plane. Besides, the rocket is released high in the air, so this sound will not reach the ground.
So, if the UK keeps working on a legal framework to regulate rocket launches, and Virgin Orbits keeps successfully deploying satellites to orbits, the collaboration between Cornwall and Virgin will be possible. More importantly, this partnership will have the potential to raise the UK to a new level in the space race. But time will show if it happens.