Virgin Orbit satellite launch from a 747 kicks off a satellite launch boom

January 19, 2021, 8:37 PM UTC

Ten tiny research satellites blasted into orbit on Sunday, but they took a more circuitous route than most objects sent into space throughout history.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit lofted the satellite payload from NASA in a rocket that took off not from a base on Earth but from beneath the wing of a 747 flying over the Pacific Ocean at 35,000 feet. With the success of Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket, on its second try after a scrapped mission last year, “a new gateway to space has just sprung open,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement.

The launch also kicked off what’s anticipated to be a banner year for small and medium-size satellite launches, led by market leader SpaceX but also including a growing array of startups. SpaceX on Wednesday plans to put 60 more of its Internet-service satellites into orbit, while smaller rival Rocket Lab is looking to launch a German communications satellite in the next week or so after a technical glitch postponed a planned takeoff from New Zealand on Saturday. Astra, another rocket startup, aims to put its first payload into orbit in early 2021 after a flight in December fell just short of reaching the proper altitude.

So far, there’s plenty of demand from dozens of data and communications satellite-based startups. More than 30 companies want to send small satellites into low-earth orbit, ranging from SpaceX’s home-Internet provider Starlink to machine and sensor data-collector Swarm to high-resolution imaging service Capella Space. The launch market is expected to grow to $25 billion by 2029, according to research firm Prophecy Market Insights.

And while SpaceX has the greatest available capacity, it’s focused on launching the thousands of additional satellites it needs to offer global service via its space Internet service Starlink, notes Ethan Batraski, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Venrock who is active in backing space startups. “There is more demand for launch than available capacity,” he says.

Virgin Orbit’s technique of using an airplane to give a head start to rockets means less preparation on the ground and more flexibility to avoid poor weather conditions. But its smaller rocket carries only about 1,000 pounds to orbit, while land-based rockets can carry hundreds of times more. And pound for pound, it’s not necessarily any cheaper than traditional rocket flights, analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates says.

Other startups aiming to join the launch party in 2021 include ABL Space Systems, backed by Venrock, as well as Firefly Aerospace and Relativity Space. Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL rocket also launches from beneath the wing of an airplane.

Wall Street is looking to get in on the act soon. Branson hinted on Tuesday that he could look to take Virgin Orbit public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company. And ARK Invest, the firm that runs publicly traded funds focused on hot tech niches, said last week that it is planning a new space-focused fund.

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