Virgin Orbit tries to launch a missile from plane
The mission was unsuccessful
The American space agency Virgin Orbit first attempted a test launch on Monday around 10 p.m. with LauncherOne, a rocket launched from the wing of the Cosmic Girl aircraft. The mission was unsuccessful: the launch came to an early end for reasons unknown, shortly after the missile released from the aircraft. The plane has landed safely again.
Cosmic Girl flew above the Pacific Ocean and climbed to an altitude of 10 kilometers. Over the Pacific, the aircraft began to fly in circles while all systems were being checked.
The green light was given for the launch around 9:45 pm local time. Shortly after, the plane released LauncherOne and ignited the engine, but minutes later the mission ended prematurely. It failed to get the rocket into space.
The launch was supposed to take place on Sunday, but was postponed due to a sensor failure. Before the launch, Virgin Orbit said to prepare for a failure, because it is not often that the first flight of a new launch vehicle goes well. The plane and the rocket took off from the Mojave Desert in the U.S. state of Nevada.
A missile is mainly launched from a flying aircraft to save energy and increase payload ratio. About the first 10 kilometers of the atmosphere, the troposphere is the most airtight. It therefore takes a lot of energy to pierce this layer with a rocket.
By flying above the troposphere with an airplane, this layer can be skipped. Then, for example, less fuel is needed for the entire launch than with a launch from the ground. On the other hand, the rocket and the load cannot be too big, otherwise the aircraft can no longer safely take to the air.
The technique of using a flying aircraft as a mobile launching base is not new. Aerospace company Northrop Grumman has been launching the Pegasus missile from the fuselage of a flying aircraft for thirty years.
The difference is that LauncherOne is fired from the wing and it uses a different type of fuel. Pegasus uses a solid fuel, like a firework arrow does, while LauncherOne has liquid fuel. Generally, liquid fuel engines can be controlled more precisely.