Virgin Orbit has been preparing for this moment for years, but it's now officially ready to launch its small satellite delivery vehicle to orbit for the first time. This key demonstration mission, taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, will replicate the actual operational launch experience that Virgin Orbit hopes to provide its customers going forward.
The company is targeting Sunday May 24 at 10 AM PT (1 PM ET) for this historic launch, with a four-hour window on the day during which the actual take-off could occur. The mission will include flying its modified Boeing 747 carrier craft with its LauncherOne to that vehicles launch altitude, where it'll detach from the 747 and use its own rocket engines to make the rest of the trip to space. There's a backup opportunity on Monday, should weather interfere.
Virgin Orbit's approach differs from traditional vertical rocket launches, and use of the carrier aircraft means it can take off from traditional runways. The LauncherOne rocket is a two-stage expendable launch vehicle that can carry around 660 lbs to 1,100 lbs to orbit, depending on the orbit required. That puts it at more payload capacity than Rocket Lab's Electron, but less than SpaceX's Falcon 9.
The concept behind Virgin Orbit's approach is designed to reduce costs to make small satellite launches more affordable. Estimates put launch costs at around $12 million per flight, which is a considerable savings versus traditional launch costs and even the price of SpaceX missions.
Virgin Orbit has been performing a number of tests and flights to get ready for this final full demonstration mission, including a captive carry test last month. If all goes well with this demo mission, the company could begin launching for commercial clients as early as July.