In brief After an initial failure in 2020, the Virgin Galactic spinout reached orbit on its second try, with the LauncherOne rocket deploying its payloads to a 500km orbit.
Virgin Orbit employs an air-launch system via the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, an adapted Boeing 747, which drops LauncherOne at the required altitude. The first attempt, in may last year, saw a brief firing of the rocket’s engine before it abruptly cut out. Things went considerably better over the weekend as the NewtonThree engine burned for the full duration before stage separation and the NewtonFour-powered second stage took the payload to orbit.
Virgin Orbit can now take its place alongside other small sat launchers, such as Rocket Lab. The differentiator is that air-launch capability removes the need for as much ground infrastructure.
NASA bigwigs, the UK Space Agency and UK politicians lined up to congratulate the company. After all, there is a runway in Cornwall anxiously awaiting Virgin Orbit’s arrival.
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021
Boeing’s Calamity Capsule software checks out
While the Space Launch System core stage, led by Boeing, may have faltered over the weekend, the company’s troubled CST-100 Starliner spacecraft took another step closer to launch.
Issues with the qualification processes the first time around resulted in a failure of the uncrewed capsule to reach the International Space Station (ISS) and a truncated mission. Boeing announced that the formal requalification of the flight software was now complete ahead of a re-run of that first mission in March.
Testing has included full end-to-end mission scenarios and “additional assessments were made to verify the complete integration of software with all recommended flight hardware.” It’s a shame that such diligence did not feature quite so prominently before.
Additional work is planned with the launch provider, United Launch Alliance, as well as the ISS programme before a final end-to-end simulation of the entire OFT-2 mission is run in the Avionics and Software Integration Lab (ASIL) using flight hardware and the final version of the flight software.
Should the repeat mission, the uncrewed OFT-2, be successful, the company hopes to launch its astronauts later this year.
Blue Origin launches and lands another uncrewed capsule
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin made progress towards stuffing humans into its crew capsule last week as it launched a fresh New Shepard booster and capsule, recovering both components.
While there were no humans on board, the capsule was outfitted with seats and other fripperies to improve the experience for future flyers. The six seats featured microphones and screens for communication purposes as well as sound suppression devices to keep the noise down.
The capsule reached an apogee of 105km above ground level during the 10-minute mission and a maximum speed of 3,609km/h. The capsule, which could well end up being the one to carry the first crew, landed under parachute a few minutes after the booster, which performed its customary crowd-pleasing propulsive landing.
The booster itself is named for the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Like that of his namesake, Shepard’s mission was a sub-orbital lob, although back in 1961 the astronaut’s Mercury capsule reached an apogee of 187.5km.
Bezos’s rocket, however, is intended to be reusable and those carried in its capsule will enjoy both considerably improved comfort and better views than that of the first American in space, some 60 years ago. ®