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With a simple and cheap rocket, Virgin Orbit aims for the extraordinary

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LONG BEACH, Calif.—The black outline of a rocket painted on a concrete factory floor measures a little more than 20 meters in length. As Will Pomerantz strides along it, he admits that the depicted LauncherOne vehicle won’t exactly amaze aerospace enthusiasts. In designing the rocket, Virgin Orbit opted for a workhorse rather than a show pony.

“As awesome a goal as it is to put humans on Mars—or SUVs on Mars, or send robots past Pluto—that’s not what we’re trying to do,” says Pomerantz, a vice president at Virgin Orbit and the company’s first employee. “We’re trying to do the simplest, cheapest vehicle that we think is commercially viable in the long run.”

LauncherOne’s most distinctive feature is that it does not blast off from the surface of the Earth. Rather, it detaches from a 747 aircraft at 11km (~6.8 miles) and ascends to space from there. The fuel it burns—a highly refined form of kerosene known as RP-1—has launched rockets for more than half a century. And the engines are as simple as they practically can be.

However, by developing technology that isn’t particularly revolutionary, Virgin Orbit may achieve some truly revolutionary goals. Along with Rocket Lab and a growing number of competitors, Virgin seeks to dramatically lower the cost of access to space for small satellites and, perhaps more importantly, radically reduce the wait time for companies to get their ideas into space.

For about $10 million, Virgin will launch payloads weighing up to half a ton into low Earth orbit. One comparable service exists today: Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket launches from a similar aircraft and delivers a like-sized payload into space. The Pegasus has existed since 1990 but now flies less than once a year. That's because its cost has ballooned to $40-55 million a mission.

For pretty much the entire history of spaceflight, companies or academic groups that wanted to send a payload of a few hundred kilograms into space had to pay dearly or fly as “second class” citizens on larger rockets, waiting on the primary payload or the full-sized rocket to get into space. And once there, the smaller payload often was relegated to whatever orbit the primary customer desired.

As such, high costs and years of wait time precluded all but the safest investments from flying into space: communications and observation satellites. Even today, more than two years usually elapse between when a customer inquires about a launch and it gets its first data back. This has likely held back considerable innovation in low-Earth orbit from new players.

“Both the time and money element are critical,” Pomerantz said. “For start-up companies—for brand new entrants to dip into the pool—that is a long time. We’d like to cut that in half, if not more.”

Other companies do, too. The pent-up demand for low-cost launch services for smaller satellites has unleashed a gold rush to the launchpad. The co-founder of Virgin competitor Vector has described the emerging market as “Shooting turkeys in a drum.” The Vector official, Jim Cantrell, has previously told Ars, “We see ourselves almost like trauma surgeons coming to the rescue of Earth-bound satellites. There’s just no easy way to space.”

This market has prompted dozens of companies to begin developing a multitude of small-launch concepts. They range from traditional skinny boosters, to air-launched rockets (such as Virgin’s LauncherOne), to entirely 3D-printed rockets and engines.

Though the market may be fertile now, once more than a handful of companies begin flying, most other ventures will probably fail. Pomerantz knows this as well as anyone. One competitor, Rocket Lab, has already launched its Electron booster twice. Now it is preparing for a third flight in June, which will also be its first fully commercial mission. Virgin needs to fly soon.

“We are getting pretty darn close,” Pomerantz said when Ars visited Virgin Orbit in April for a tour of the factory. “I’m always hesitant to put dates on it, because we’re always wrong, like everyone in the industry. But I think we’re months away.”

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