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Virgin Orbit scores its first orbital launch

Eight months after an unsuccessful first attempt, Virgin Orbit finally lived up to its name today and used an innovative air-launch system to send 10 satellites to orbit.

With backing from British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system capitalizes on a concept that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded 17 years ago.

The air-launch concept won SpaceShipOne a $10 million prize back in 2004. Today, it plays an essential role not only for LauncherOne, but also for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system and the Stratolaunch venture that Allen founded in 2011.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, serves as a flying launch pad for the two-stage LauncherOne rocket.

During last May’s first full-fledged flight test, the rocket’s first-stage NewtonThree engine lit up for only a few seconds before a breach in the propellant system forced a shutdown. No such glitch arose today.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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