A Closer Look at Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne

LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Orbit has released a service guide for its LauncherOne. Below are excerpts from the document. You can read the full guide here.

LauncherOne System (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Payload Capability

  • Up to 300 kg / 661 lbm to 500 km / 270 nmi Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO)
  • Up to 500 kg / 1100 lbm to 230 km / 124 nmi circular 0 degree inclination Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
LauncherOne sample payload configurations (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Payload Dynamic Volume

  • 1262 mm / 49.7 inch constant cylindrical diameter
  • 2123 mm / 83.6 inch constant cylindrical length
  • 3543 mm / 139.5 inch overall payload fairing envelope length

Launch Altitudes/Inclinations

Orbital payload delivery performance curves (Credit: Virgin Orbit)
  • Up to 1200 km depending upon payload and inclination
  • West Coast US (Mojave Air and Space Port): 60 to 180 degrees inclination
  • East Coast US : 0 to 60 degrees inclination

Launch Schedule

  • Flexibility to conduct launch from any licensed spaceport facility
  • Emphasis on reducing time-to-launch; 6 months for a typical primary payload
  • Flexible launch windows to accommodate schedule changes/variation
LauncherOne payload processing in Long Beach. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Payload Processing

  • Independently-operated customer payload processing facility with ISO Level 8 (100k class) clean room in Long Beach, CA
  • Options exist for receipt of pre-encapsulated payloads

Launch Locations

Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Mojave Air and Space Port)

LauncherOne operates independently, and because we are not reliant on a government maintained launch range, we are unaffected by many of the external factors that can delay ground based launches from federal ranges such as weather, offline radar tracking assets, vehicles in the launch pad keep-out zone, and manifest jams on the increasingly crowded Eastern and Western ranges.

The primary spaceport for LauncherOne is the Mojave Air and Space Port (MHV) in California. Virgin Orbit has completed launch assessments for MHV and is assessing requirements for a variety of lower latitude operating locations, including the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, Kona International Airport (KOA) in Hawaii, and former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico. Virgin Orbit can also assess alternative launch locations and will pursue approvals to operate from these locations as necessary to support our customers’ needs.

The baseline flight profile involves release of the LauncherOne launch vehicle over the Pacific Ocean, tens of kilometers from the California coastline, after a flight of approximately 30 minutes from Mojave. For low inclination launches, the drop point is optimally located based on the inclination desired for the mission. Due to the large range of the carrier aircraft and the flexible locations for spaceports, the drop point can be as low as 0 degrees latitude for 0 degree inclined orbits. In this case, the drop point could be over 1000 km from the launch port.

Launch Operations Flow

For standard launch operations, launch occurs within three days of payload encapsulation and transport to the spaceport. Key events in the launch schedule and typical timing relative to takeoff are as follows:

STEPTASK
01LauncherOne vehicle integration and checkout (L-3 days and earlier)
02Payload mate to LauncherOne (L-3 days)
03Launch Readiness Review (L-2 days)
04Rollout and mate of LauncherOne with payload to carrier aircraft (L-1 day)
05Propellant loading (T-6 hours to T-60 minutes)
06747 aircraft engine start and L1 GSE disconnect (T-30 minutes)
07747 aircraft take-off; LauncherOne purge provided to payload encapsulated environment by the carrier aircraft (T-30 minutes)
08LauncherOne release and launch (T+0 minutes)
09Second stage ignition (T+ 3 minutes)
10Payload injection (Mission dependent, but approximately T+60 min)

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  • Saturn13

    We know SRM works released from an airplane, now we will see how well a liquid rocket works. If they launch enough to see how safe it is. No F-9 problems I hope.

  • OldCodger

    Now all they need are customers.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I wish them good fortune…

  • ThomasLMatula

    The advantage of Kona International Airport is that you will be able to launch from 0 to 180 degrees inclination. Also, having lived on the Big Island, I know it will be easy to attract a workforce. Even Sir Richard Branson would be able to find a suitable place to live on the island.

  • roflplatypus

    Interesting it has no fin like Pegasus. Guess it just gimbals like a missile or something.

  • Douglas Messier

    They were awarded 39 OneWeb launches while this thing was still a paper rocket. That was a result of them buying into the company. And they signed a deal last week for another launch with a European company.

  • William Douglass

    How far up range does the first stage impact?

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Apropos air launch, does Stratolaunch have a rocket yet? Last I thing I remember was they were gonna launch a salvo of 3 Pegauses at once or something, but even that was fluid?

  • OldCodger

    You obviously have your finger on the pulse much more than I do (but that is why you write a blog and I read it!).

  • savuporo

    So it’s not a paper rocket anymore, then ? Aren’t they still far off from any actual launch attempt ?

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s what concerns me about this plan. Solids are very stable. But, fueling on the ground and then at least 30 minutes of flight time to get to the release point. Do they need a system on board to top off the LOX? And do they dump fuel from the rocket if they have an abort and need to return to Mojave?

    About 3.5 years ago, Google was in talks to make an equity investment in VG and also take over the LauncherOne program. But, there were concerns about the safety of air launching a liquid rocket.

  • patb2009

    The Big Island kind of sucks. Bad water, sulfur gas from the Volcano, really expensive supplies. Some people like it but, I knew a guy lived near Hilo. Said it was a hard life.

  • duheagle

    Who knows? But VO has a big building at the Long Beach airport and the parking lot is not empty.

  • duheagle

    Stratolaunch recently hired a propulsion guy with a lengthy resume. Looks as though a roll-your-own launcher may be coming at some point. In the meantime, the Carbon Fiber Overcast can, indeed, carry up to 3 O-ATK Pegasus rockets at once. Not sure salvo fire is an option, though.

  • duheagle

    If you’re wondering how well a liquid propellant rocket engine works after being released by an aircraft, there’s this old codger named Chuck Yeager you might want to ask.

  • duheagle

    The X-1, X-2 and X-15 all used LOX as oxidizer. Maybe if you ask nice, Chuck Yeager would be willing to answer questions about how LOX was handled on an air-launched rocket back in the Late Pleistocene Era. Seriously, am I the only one who remembers this stuff?

  • Douglas Messier

    i think they’re talking about a test flight in the next six months or so.

  • Douglas Messier

    Good point. I’ll remember to ask him about Skip Ziegler.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Ha ha, salvo was my wild interpretation of their art – I saw three Pegasus and couldn’t help but imagine them going at once.

    Do you have a name of the propulsion person or a link to the story? At least any indication if they’re going solid v. liquid?

  • duheagle

    The guy’s name is Jeff Thornburg. The story ran here on Parabolic Arc about two months ago. Thornburg’s experience is all in liquid propellant engines.

  • duheagle

    Like I said, Late Pleistocene. Skip got killed because of a leather gasket. The women of the tribe of Bell apparently hadn’t chewed the leather enough to make it sufficiently soft. I’m pretty sure VO and Stratolaunch won’t be making any of their rocket engines’ gaskets out of leather.

  • Douglas Messier

    Oh good. That’s a relief. I guess we won’t have to bother Chuck after all.

  • Douglas Messier

    Saw Stratolaunch for the first time on Friday. The scale of it is amazing. I’ve seen Spruce Goose, 747 and A-380 up close. This thing just blows all of those away.

    Unfortunately, they don’t have a booster yet to justify building anything of this size. Building the world’s largest plane by wingspan to launch the world’s smallest operational booster makes no sense. But, that’s Scaled for you. Focus on the flying machine before you’ve nailed down the rocket. Same thing happened with SpaceShipTwo.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Kona is where I was thinking of, very different since it’s on the Leeward side.

  • duheagle

    Mr. Allen, like Mr. Musk, but unlike Mr. Branson, seems inclined to change direction when the initial route proves untenable. Mr. Allen’s initial plan was to have some rocket company do the rocket. That didn’t work out. The Thornburg hiring all but confirms that Stratolaunch now intends to borrow another page from the Elon Musk management handbook and go for vertical integration.

    That will probably take a few more years to reach fruition. Like Mr. Bezos, Mr. Allen is wealthy enough that he has no urgent requirement for near-term big bucks revenue from Stratolaunch. Corking off a Pegasus once or twice a year can keep the Carbon Fiber Overcast usefully exercised and would probably provide enough pin money to cover at least part of Stratolaunch’s routine expenses in the meantime.

  • Saturn13

    I do not know what happened, but I thought my post said: but the X planes did ok. X-1 used alcohol and LOX I think. I am a pilot and I have flown an ultralight I built from plans. I would not get in this 747.

  • Douglas Messier

    They went through multiple contracts to build a big booster with established companies. Then they talked to everybody with a rocket or an engine or a plan for one. They then came thisclose to doing an agreement with Firefly. They then settled on the only interim solution available — flight proven Pegasus — so they could launch something while they figured out what to do. Then they hired Thornburg.

    Way too many pivots in there. Way too little clarity on what they were going to launch. The result is a massive airplane in search of something to justify its existence.

  • ThomasLMatula

    At least it will make a nice addition to his museum. BTW do you know if Burt Rutan had a role in its design? It look like something he would design.

  • Douglas Messier

    This was Rutan’s dream for many years. I’ve heard the runway was reinforced years before the project was ever announced. How much he was involved in actually designing it I’m not sure.

  • duheagle

    I never alleged that Stratolaunch’s path has been either superlatively well-planned or without reverses. Most of the latter have been quite public. I just note that Mr. Allen is both more capable and more willing than Mr. Branson seems to be to switch directions when the universe is hinting strongly that one should.

    We seem to differ mainly on how likely the Carbon Fiber Overcast is to ever find gainful employment. I acknowledge that there are reasons for skepticism on that point. But the rapidly developing Era of the Smallsat looks as though it will provide a lot more ecological niches to fill than has the more traditional satellite and launch ecosystem. I figure the jury may stay out on Stratolaunch’s ultimate fate for as much as five more years.

  • duheagle

    Probably quite variable depending upon orbital altitude being targeted for a payload.

  • Abdul M. Ismail

    …in the wars to come.

    That’s exactly what Ser Arthur Dayne said to Ned Stark before he was killed and also Mance Rayder to Stannis Baratheon before he was killed.