British businessman Sir Richard Branson is looking to this weekend to debut one of his new space systems.
Virgin Orbit, based in California, will put satellites above the Earth, using a rocket that’s launched from under the wing of a jumbo jet.
The maiden mission, to be conducted out over the Pacific Ocean, could take place as early as Saturday.
Assuming this demonstration is successful, Virgin Orbit hopes to move swiftly into commercial operations.
It already has a rocket built at its Long Beach factory for a second mission.
There is an emerging market for small, lower-cost satellites, whose developers are seeking more flexible and affordable ways of getting their assets into space.
Virgin Orbit is one of a number of companies now racing to meet this demand. Other contenders include the Rocket Lab outfit, which sends up its vehicles from a ground launch pad in New Zealand; but there are tens of other small rocket start-ups at various stages of development.
Sir Richard had originally planned to run his satellite-launch business as part of his tourist spaceplane venture, known as Virgin Galactic, but decided eventually to split the projects into separate entities.
The businessman will not be in California at the weekend to witness the demonstration. He’ll be following events remotely.
Virgin Orbit engineers will only proceed with the test mission if the weather over the Pacific launch zone is favourable.
If it is, the former Virgin Atlantic jumbo, now named Cosmic Girl, will carry the rocket, dubbed LauncherOne, to an altitude of about 35,000ft (10km), where it will drop the liquid-fuelled booster into a freefall.
Roughly four seconds into that fall, as Cosmic Girl banks hard to the right, LauncherOne will ignite its Newton Three engine to begin the climb to orbit. The dummy payload atop the rocket’s upper-stage will be released after 32 minutes.
The company is trying to dampen too much expectation. Maiden flights of rockets quite often discover unforeseen technical shortcomings and fail.
“That’s what the history of rockets tells us and we’re ready for that, but we’ll see how far we get,” Will Pomerantz, Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Orbit, said. “As soon as that Newton engine ignites, we’ll be learning,” he told BBC News.
The company had hoped to run this campaign earlier in the year but like all businesses has had to contend with coronavirus complications. Indeed, part of the Long Beach factory has been turned over to making ventilators for use in hospitals.
Currently, flight operations are being run out of the Mojave Air and Space Port to the north of Los Angeles. But Virgin Orbit expects at some point to offer launches to customers in different locations around the world.
Sir Richard and the British government have spoken of using Newquay in southwest England as a potential base.