The small satellite revolution

Virgin Orbit has officially entered the commercial space race.
Testing played a critical role in the company’s success.

In 2015, engineers and innovators at Virgin Galactic—Richard Branson’s space tourism venture—dedicated themselves to an ambitious new project: developing a low-cost commercial launch service for small satellites. The key advancement was that the rocket carrying the payload wouldn’t blast off from a vertical launchpad on the ground, as most others typically do. Virgin’s rocket would deploy midair from a modified Boeing 747. This novel method ultimately would translate into more flexibility, allowing the launch to happen from anywhere that can accommodate a large passenger plane.

The disruptive idea eventually grew into its own business. Virgin Orbit spun off from Virgin Galactic as its own entity in 2017, and this year took a giant leap toward becoming a full-fledged commercial launch service. In January, Virgin Orbit partnered with the U.S. government on a successful test flight. Then in June, the company’s 70-foot LauncherOne rocket completed its first operational mission, blasting into space from the wing of a Boeing 747 and deploying satellites from three different countries into orbit.

The success of these efforts, however, were not a given. The launches came after an aborted first attempt on Memorial Day in 2020 due to a problem with the engine. Yet for the Virgin Orbit team, the misfire was less a setback than a learning experience—one that would prove critical to ultimately delivering such a complex engineering product.

“One reason that Virgin Orbit has been so successful in just a few years is embracing the idea that failure is acceptable in testing, especially early in a program,” said Kevin Sagis, Virgin Orbit’s chief engineer and vice president of engineering. “In fact, if you're not failing, it's my perception that you aren't succeeding.”

The company was able to leverage data from the Memorial Day test, as well as other miscues that emerged throughout the product life cycle, to optimize its designs and systems. Simply put, those early challenges laid the foundation for Virgin Orbit’s ultimate achievement—a 100 percent success rate when it comes to delivering satellites into space.

The right kind
of failure

After an extensive investigation, the company identified the cause of the Memorial Day engine failure as a breach in the mechanism meant to carry liquid oxygen to a combustion chamber. “Without a supply of oxidizer, that engine soon stopped providing thrust, ending our powered flight and ultimately the test itself,” Virgin Orbit said in a statement. After an “enormous amount of testing,” the company resolved the issue and went on to succeed in its next two attempts.

“There’s an old joke in the industry: Failure is not an option; it comes standard. You don't get to choose it; it’s going to be there,” said Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president of special projects, reflecting on the critical role that rooting out problems has played in developing LauncherOne. The challenge faced by the team at Virgin Orbit, he added, is how to manage that risk: “How do you embrace the right kinds of failure so that you're actually learning from it?”

Part of that answer lies in the testing technology. The company utilized software and hardware from NI—a company that supports engineering innovation through test and measurement solutions—to help them assess various parts of LauncherOne long before the rocket could even take its first flight. During what’s known as a hot fire test, for example, the engine is mounted onto a structure called a test stand that is equipped with various sensors, and then fired. The company uses NI tools to help capture measurements from the test fire and feed comprehensive data back to the team for analysis. Virgin Orbit also relies on NI’s hardware-in-the-loop system, in which the team uses computer software to simulate space flight, helping certify that the rocket will work as it should during a real launch.

“On the ground, we evaluate both mission assurance and safety critical components,” said Azusena Jimenez, a propulsion components test engineer at Virgin Orbit. “The success of these components is essential to keep our crews safe in flight, and also to ensure that our rocket is reaching orbit.”

“We learn a ton from every single test,” she added.

Making an inclusive
space industry

This commitment to testing is in service of Virgin Orbit’s primary mission: to open the satellite industry to everyone. There’s no end to the way these deployed satellites can be used, Pomerantz notes. “People don't realize that satellites are what make your GPS work or what allow your ATM to work or drive your weather predictions or all these other things that make us safer, that make us healthier, that make us richer, that make us smarter,” he said. “All of those things are really important. But as much as I love the industry, I think it’s had a real access problem.”

For the most part, only wealthy nations have had the resources to operate satellites. Yet today, as the devices have become smaller and cheaper to launch, other actors including private companies and developing countries are now potentially capable of sending a satellite into orbit. This democratization has profound benefits. An innovative environmental nonprofit, for example, could use their own satellite to comprehensively monitor the impact of forest fires in real-time.

Virgin Orbit has emerged as a pioneering force in this new, more inclusive space sector.

“What lies ahead is exciting—we're preparing to launch a third time in 2021, then in 2022, we're going to be launching from a variety of sites around the world,” Sagis said. “The way I think about it is that we already won the Super Bowl and we're about to play in a few more. I can't wait for it.”