virgin orbit, launcherone

Tubular Bells, Part One | LauncherOne

Lift Off Time
(Subject to change)
June 30, 2021 – 14:47 UTC | 07:47 PDT
Mission Name
Tubular Bells, Part One
Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)
Virgin Orbit
(Who’s paying for this?)
Department of Defense, SatRevolution, Royal Netherlands Air Force
Launch Location
Cosmic Girl, Mojave Air and Space Port, California, USA
Payload mass
Unknown, up to 300 kg (660 lb)
Where are the satellites going?
Polar Orbit
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
No, this is not a capability of Virgin Orbit
Where will the first stage land?
It will crash into the Pacific Ocean
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
No, this is not a capability of Virgin Orbit
Are these fairings new?
How’s the weather looking?
25.6 degrees C (78.0 degrees F) with clear skies
This will be the:
– 3rd LauncherOne flight ever
– 2nd LauncherOne flight of 2021
– 1st public livestream of a Virgin Orbit launch
– 60th orbital launch attempt of 2021
– 1st DOD mission on LauncherOne
Where to watch
Virgin Orbit livestream

Everyday Astronaut livestream

What’s all this mean?

Virgin Orbit will be conducting its second operational launch of their LauncherOne rocket on the Tubular Bells, Part One mission. Its previous launch attempt was in early 2021. The payload consists of a few small satellites from the United States and Netherlands governments as well as nanosatellites from SatRevolution, a Poland based satellite building company. LauncherOne will launch from underneath a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft named “Cosmic Girl”.

What does the mission name “Tubular Bells, Part One” mean?

The name dates back to 1973 when Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, helped musician Mike Oldfield get his record made. During the process, he owned a record shop and founded Virgin Records. The album was called “Tubular Bells” and hit top charts internationally, while staying there for months on end. Virgin Orbit wanted to give a nod to the unique music, which was unlike the typical rock and roll of the decade. The DOD and the other customers are also doing something unique with their technology demonstrations.

Listen to the first track of the album, “Tubular Bells, Part One” here.

What is on the Totally Tubular mission?

A total of seven satellites will be encapsulated by the fairing on board LauncherOne. This includes two payloads from SatRevolution, four from United States Department of Defense, and one from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Due to some payloads being government payloads, a limited amount information has been publicly released.

Department of Defense Payload

The United States Department of Defense (US DOD) is launching as part of their Space Test Program (STP) Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). The goal of RALI is to acquire new and unique small sat launchers as reliable methods of getting DOD smallsats into various orbits. This mission in particular is known as STP-27VPA, which will be followed up by STP-27VPB later this year. The main goal of STP-27VPA is to demonstrate specific space technologies in a small form.

Royal Netherlands Airforce Payload

The Royal Netherlands Air Force will be launching their first ever satellite called BRIK-II. BRIK-II’s name comes as a homage to the first ever airplane operated by the Royal Netherlands Airforce called “Brik”. BRIK-II will provide vital data and intelligence to the Royal Netherlands Air Force including navigation and Earth observation. The main goal is to provide a testing platform for military applications with small and nano satellites.

brik-ii, royal netherlands air force
BRIK-II satellite during software testing. (Credit: Isispace)

The satellite was built by Innovative Solutions in Space with an almost three million dollar budget, which covered both the research and development as well as launch. Future plans include adding other satellites to the fleet. For the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s purposes, a total of about 24 satellites will be needed.

SatRevolution Payloads

SatRevolution will be launching two satellites called STORK-4 and STORK-5 Marta. In short, these satellites will observe and collect data from far below on the Earth’s surface. Mainly focusing on the United States of America, it will study farmland by collecting data on the condition of crops. This data can then be used by farmers to better the quality and health of their crops and properly regulate their hydration levels.

satrevolution, launcherone, virgin orbit
SatRevolution’s STORK-4 satellite being inserted into the dispenser. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Both satellites will also help to manage large scale projects like mining and the construction of fiber optic networks. By studying sun and shade angles and coverage, STORK-4 and STORK-5 Marta can help to determine the best and most efficient locations for solar panels to maximize their energy output.

A goal has been stated by SatRevoluation of 1,500 satellites total in the Real-time Earth Observation Constellation (REC) constellation by 2026. Each STORK satellite will have the ability to communicate with each other and process data as well as imagery onboard, to simplify and accelerate the data interpretation process.

LauncherOne Launch Sequence

After Cosmic Girl reaches 10,600 m (35,000 ft) of altitude, the pilots pitch the plane upwards at a 27° angle. Then, controllers give the launch command (hitting the Big Red Button) from the “first-class” Mission Control. This triggers the launch sequence that ensures that there is no accidental jettison prior to the actual commanded launch.


The red pylon contains 3 hooks that detach from the rocket, letting the rocket fall. After about three seconds of free-fall, the propellant settling thrusters ignite, followed by the NewtonThree engine firing. After a few minutes, it has increased its velocity to about 12,870 km/h (~8,000 mph). The first stage then separates from the second and breaks up in the atmosphere following a balistic trajectory. 

Stage Separation

Shortly after stage separation, the second stage’s NewtonFour Engine ignites. It propels the payload the rest of the way to orbit. Depending on the flight profile and mission, the second stage will perform two or three burns for a controlled deorbit, or to increase performance. Once the rocket is out of the thickest parts the atmosphere, the fairing halves will separate and fall back into the ocean, since they are no longer needed to protect the payload.


LauncherOne is comprised of two stages. To start off, the first stage, which houses RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1, a highly refined form of kerosene) and liquid oxygen or LOX. These two will mix and power the single, pump-fed, NewtonThree engine, which is capable of producing 327 kN (73,500 lbf) of thrust. Near the fins of the engine, there are two Propellant Settling Thrusters (PSTs). They ignite just seconds before the NewtonThree engine to force the propellants to the bottom of the tank where the valves are, which leads to the propellant transfer lines so the engine doesn’t take in any air. This is not commonly seen on the first stages of liquid-fueled rockets, since they take off vertically and on the ground. However, they are very common and almost necessary on the proceeding stages of any rocket.

Notice, to the left and right of the red engine cover. There are two teeth looking objects mounted to the fin can, those are the PSTs. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

The second stage is much smaller and has a single, pump-fed, NewtonFour engine, which is also propelled by RP-1 and LOX. This engine has the capability to relight and can only produce 22 kN (5,000 lbf) of thrust. The difference between each engine is minimal since LauncherOne is already at around 10,600 m when its first stage ignites. Therefore both engines need to have a larger engine bell than if they were at sea level. This larger bell helps to take advantage of the lack of air pressure at high altitudes to perform better.

Expanded LauncherOne rocket with stage descriptions (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

How does LauncherOne compare to other rockets?

The only other place where one might find a set of events similar to LauncherOne’s is Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus launcher, which also starts underneath a plane. In particular, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar aircraft named Stargazer. Pegasus has launched a total of 44 times with 39 total successes.

How do Pegasus and LauncherOne differ?

Visually, they are both fairly similar. They have the familiar rocket shape (flamey end and a pointy end) and both have fins. However, Pegasus has a wing near the midsection of the rocket. This is for enhanced stability specific to the structure of Pegasus.

First Stage Engines11
Payload Capacity (LEO)500 kg (1100 lb)443 kg (977 lb)
Launch PlatformBoeing 747-400 (Cosmic Girl)Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (Stargazer)
Lift-off LocationMojave Air and Spaceport, CaliforniaVaries (Florida, California, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans)
LauncherOne before being mounted to Cosmic Girl (Credit: Virgin Orbit)
Pegasus mounted underneath the NASA B-52 before liftoff (Credit: NASA)

Why Air-Launch?

The ability to air-launch is a tremendous advantage for multiple reasons. If the weather is bad in one area, the plane can fly to another area with calmer skies. Some other advantages include a reduced amount of fuel, an altitude and velocity increase, which will already have taken it out of the denser parts of the atmosphere.

However, there is one major disadvantage. Weight. Because Cosmic Girl can only carry so much weight, and fuel is heavy, Virgin Orbit reduced the payload’s weight. That means the maximum payload to LEO is 500 kg and to Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) is 300 kg.

Cosmic Girl ascending to altitude before release of LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

On the other hand, this weight limitation does not impede Virgin Orbit’s principal mission. Their goal is to make space available to everyone. Since the CubeSat industry is expanding, there is room for yet another launch vehicle in the small sat launcher class. They will be capable of providing a cheaper way to launch small satellites for universities and STEM programs. 

1 comment
  1. The other big disadvantage is the operating cost of the mothership. Of course this is also offset by not needing a vertical launch facility but there are reasons this concept hasn’t been fully explored yet. They still need to build a SpaceShipTwo type vehicle sized for the Roc to really test it out. The upfront cost is high but it has potential for extreme reuse.

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