Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit pushes midair rocket launch to Monday

The company will light up the sky with LauncherOne.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
2 min read

A rendering of a Launcher One rocket detaching from its carrier plane.

Virgin Orbit

Though Virgin Orbit has been devoting some of its resources to help build ventilators for California's Emergency Medical Services Authority during the Covid-19 pandemic, the company also has big plans for this week, with the first demonstration of its LauncherOne rocket.

LauncherOne is Virgin's take on an orbital launch system. Rather than blasting off from the ground like SpaceX, Rocket Lab or other competitors, founder Richard Branson's concept involves attaching a small rocket to the belly of a modified 747, flying it above 75 percent of Earth's atmosphere and launching it from there. 

Last July, Virgin Orbit completed a test run in which a rocket was successfully dropped from Cosmic Girl, a 747 plucked from the Virgin Atlantic fleet, but Launcher One's NewtonThree first stage engine wasn't ignited. 

Watch this: Virgin Orbit will fly rockets from the UK

The company planned to do a full demonstration launch Sunday, May 24, but a screwy sensor prompted the team to scrub for the day "out of an abundance of caution."

The company tweeted that the issue should be resolved quickly, which would allow for the launch to still go forward during its backup window on Monday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. PT. The plan is for Cosmic Girl to take off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California and release the LauncherOne rocket over the Pacific Ocean. After a few seconds of free fall, the rocket's engine will ignite in midair for the first time and head toward low earth orbit. 

There won't be a livestream of the demonstration, but CNET will keep you posted on how it goes and post footage as soon as it's over.

The launch comes at a busy time for Virgin Orbit, which has been working on producing ventilators for use in California during the coronavirus pandemic. 

If Monday's demonstration launch goes well, the company will begin prepping for its first paid launch, a collaboration between NASA and universities to launch small satellites. That launch could happen as soon as June 29.