by Neel V. Patel: The company’s LauncherOne system is designed to send satellites to low-Earth orbit. Does it really have the power to send a payload to the Red Planet?


On Wednesday, Virgin Orbit, the satellite-focused spinoff of space tourism company Virgin Galactic, announced plans to launch three missions to Mars. The company has inked a partnership with Polish satellite company SatRevolution and groups from Polish universities to send three small robotic spacecraft to Mars for science investigations. The missions would be launched by Virgin Orbit’s flagship LauncherOne rocket and could start as early as 2022.

If it succeeds, Virgin Orbit will be the first commercial company to travel to the Red Planet. It will also mark an unexpected entrance into deep spaceflight for a company whose plans focus on air launches, which have always been considered unsuitable for traveling beyond low Earth orbit.

Virgin Orbit has yet to actually fly LauncherOne (it expects to do so later this year), but the plan is for a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl to carry the rocket to a high altitude and then release it. The rocket would fire its engines in midair and speed off into space. Air launches require less fuel and shielding than traditional rocket launches, and they can take place virtually anywhere, since they’re not restricted by a launch site or weather. But the airplanes struggle to take off with large rockets and large payloads.

Going into deep space with one of these air launch systems “is a pretty new idea,” says Glenn Lightsey, an aerospace engineer at Georgia Tech.