Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit with a missile under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft launches July 10, 2019 in Mojave, California, in a major drop test of its high altitude satellite launch system.
Mike Blake | Reuters
Virgin Orbit, the rocket company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, successfully launched its first satellites with its novel air launch system.
The California-based company said 10 mini-satellites had been launched into space by the same rocket launched from the wing of an old Boeing 747 jumbo jet as it flew over the Pacific.
The jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at around 10:50 a.m. PST on Sunday. Almost 60 minutes later, the LauncherOne missile dropped it approximately 50 miles south of the Channel Islands in California at an altitude of 35,000 feet.
When released, the rocket engine ignited and launched LauncherOne into space. About two hours later, 10 shoe box-sized satellites developed by universities and selected by NASA were deployed at an altitude of 500 km. The satellites are used for space exploration purposes.
"A new gateway to space has just been opened," said Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, in a statement. "That LauncherOne successfully entered orbit today is testament to the talent, precision, drive and ingenuity of this team."
The successful launch came after Virgin Orbit attempted to launch a rocket in May last year. The company diagnosed the failure of a high pressure fuel line in the engine, which shut down the rocket shortly after launch.
"Virgin Orbit achieved what many thought was impossible. It was so inspiring to see our specially customized Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, launch the LauncherOne rocket into orbit," Branson said in a statement.
"This great flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on their way into orbit."
Thanks to Virgin Orbit's launch technology, the company can theoretically launch rockets from almost anywhere on earth at short notice. For example, there are plans to launch missile-bearing 747s from Cornwall, England.
Branson hopes to benefit from the growing demand for small, relatively cheap satellites. He's not the only billionaire involved in the space race. Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Tesla's Elon Musk are also building spaceships to capitalize on the fast-growing industry.
Virgin Orbit describes itself as a "dedicated launch service for commercial and government-built small satellites".
The company plans to officially transition to commercial service for its next mission, adding that it already has later launches booked by clients such as the US Space Force and the UK Royal Air Force, as well as companies like Swarm Technologies, Italy, and SITAEL and Denmark's GomSpace.
Virgin Orbit is a spin-off from Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic. Virgin Orbit is a completely separate company and is privately owned by Branson's multinational conglomerate Virgin Group.
The speculation about how much Virgin Orbit has invested so far has varied widely. Estimates range from $ 400 million to $ 500 million and even over $ 700 million.
In an interview with CNBC in October, Hart declined to comment on how much Virgin Orbit has spent to date, but said it was "discussions" about further investments, with the company about $ 150 million in new Strive for capital.
Investors include Branson's Virgin Group and Mubadala Investment Company – the United Arab Emirates' sovereign wealth fund, which also has a significant stake in Virgin Galactic.