Launching a rocket from an airplane, an idea for the future after the British failure?

Launching a rocket from an airplane, an idea for the future after the British failure?

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Seen from our side of the Channel, a British failure is always a bit of a pleasure. Especially since the idea of ​​launching a rocket from an airplane may seem, to an amateur eye, at least curious. But if the “Start me up” mission (a delicious double reference to the Rolling Stones hit and the start-up nation) ended in failure, the rocket never having reached orbit, the company Virgin Orbit, supplier of the “Cosmic girl” plane and the “Launcher One” rocket, the British space agency and the Cornwall Spaceport immediately announced new tests.

So what can we learn from this test? Why did the UK try to launch satellites from an airplane? Will this method compete with traditional rockets? 20 minutes looked into the question with Olivier Sanguy, head of space news at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse.

Where did this British space mission come from?

To be honest with “Cosmic Girl”, the baptismal name of the Boeing 747 used by Virgin Orbit, this is not the first mission of its kind. “This is the sixth mission for this launcher, but the first from British soil”, details Olivier Sanguy, adding that the very first also ended in failure in May 2020. Not great in terms of reliability. Deprived of access to Baikonur since the start of the war in Ukraine, the United Kingdom can only count on its European and American allies to launch new satellites. Problem for launchers on the ESA side: following a technical problem, “Vega C cannot fly for several months, and the maiden flight of Ariane 6 is not scheduled until the end of 2023”.

London therefore turned to the proposal of Virgin Cosmic, “which belongs to the same group as Virgin Galactic, which was to be a pioneer in space tourism”. From an airport in Cornwall, at the western tip of the island, specially modified for the occasion, “Cosmic Girl” took off. “It’s a success for the ground installations and the plane which acts as the first floor”, emphasizes Olivier Sanguy. But it is with the launcher “Launcher One” that a problem was encountered. “We don’t know yet what happened, the press release is quite vague. “Virgin had also indicated in a first tweet that the operation was a success. But “the rocket never reached orbit”, explains the Toulousain. “The second stage was speeding over the sea at 17,700 km/h, it still lacked 11,000 km/h. And when it explodes at that speed, “there’s nothing to save.”

Why launch a rocket from an airplane?

“It’s not new to airborne launches,” begins Olivier Sanguy, first noting a “cost reduction advantage.” From classic launchers lost on first use to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which has 15 flights, “a record”, reusability is a major problem in the space sector. However, “the planes are designed to make several hundred flights”, acting as a first stage very easy to reuse. “The second advantage is flexibility. Where a conventional launcher requires heavy infrastructure, there is no need for a launch pad” with the aircraft.

Exit the square kilometers of desert, the concrete slab and the metallic architecture, a closed airport is enough. “You still have to ensure the preparation of the launcher and the satellites on the ground, with clean rooms”, but in the idea, “we can transform a place which is not made for that into a launch base”. No need therefore to have an ocean or a desert to the east of the launch pad, “to prevent the rocket from falling on civilian populations”, since it can be brought over the ocean by plane. Hence a launch from Cornwall, west of the United Kingdom. According to Olivier Sanguy, Virgin Orbit also wants to sell its license in Japan and Brazil.

In the long term, can this kind of technology count in space sovereignty?

However, it is impossible to compare the “Launcher One”, fixed under the wing of a Boeing 747, to a rocket like Ariane 6. The “Start me up” mission embarked nine small satellites from private companies, and “Launcher One” does not has a capacity of only 300 to 500 kg, when the largest satellites easily exceed a ton. “There is a commercial issue above all, with a service more suited to the market of small satellites which were secondary passengers of larger missions”, and sometimes had to wait several months or find themselves on a less than ideal trajectory, analyzes Olivier Sanguy.

“In terms of strategic sovereignty, we stay on large satellites,” he continues. Nevertheless, the issue of independence and commercial attractiveness is not neglected by European countries. “It is an issue that is more planned than significant, we are looking ahead. That’s why in France and Germany we encourage start-ups to create micro launchers. “Miniaturization nevertheless makes it possible to develop small satellites and to diversify their functions: communication relays, occasional observation of the Earth, even “scientific missions, such as the monitoring of floating ice”. “The commercial aspect is very present in this market for the moment, much more than government interests”, concludes the expert.

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