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Virgin Orbit aims for December for second attempt at orbital demonstration launch

Darrell Etherington
·2-min read

Would-be small satellite launch service provider Virgin Orbit is aiming to redo its key orbital demonstration launch this December, which would be a remarkable turnaround after its previous attempt didn't manage to reach orbit as the company had hoped. The company aims to offer low-cost launch services for small satellites, using its mid-air launch vehicle which is carried to a high altitude by a modified version of a traditional commercial jet.

This launch will hopefully mark a first for Virgin Orbit -- the first time it has reached orbit, which is where it needs to be to provide the services it hopes to offer. CNBC spoke to Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, who said that the December target is based on where they are right now with the construction of a new LauncherOne rocket to fly the test mission.

LauncherOne is docked with Virgin Orbit's carrier craft for its launch model, which is a modified 747. The jet takes it up to around 45,000 feet, at which point it drops the rocket, which ignites its own engines after separation and then flies under its own power the rest of the way to space. A rocket has a much easier time leaving Earth's atmosphere from that altitude, which is why Virgin hopes to be able to offer big cost benefits for dedicated small launch services versus what's available now.

Virgin's first launch went smoothly up until just after the LauncherOne craft used on that mission fired up its engines. There was a failure that caused the engines to cut off because of a safety shutoff, and the rocket then safely fell back to Earth, but was obviously lost.

Such a mishap on a first orbital launch attempt is far from unusual -- in fact, it's almost the norm. Virgin Orbit said they gleaned a lot of great data from their attempt regardless of the outcome, and hopefully that will mean this next try goes to plan. If it does, that should put the company on track to begin offering commercial service next year.

Meanwhile, CNBC reports that the company is also in the process of tracking down up to $150 million in new funding, echoing an earlier report from The Wall Street Journal this week.