Virgin Orbit

When most people think of a rocket launch, they think big. The Space Shuttle, Falcon 9, and Atlas V all stand well over 50 meters tall, and any of those would tower above the Statue of Liberty. They were made to lift heavy things, weighing anywhere from 10 tons to considerably larger, into orbit around Earth. But in recent years there has been a lot of noise in the small rocket industry, promising cheap, expendable boosters capable of carrying a few hundred kilograms into space.

As always in the aerospace industry, some of these efforts were overhyped or had wildly optimistic timelines. For example, the industry suffered a notable failure late last year when Firefly Space Systems declared bankruptcy. However, a number of other companies have made tangible progress this year, making it clear that this generation of small satellite launch vehicles is closing in on their first commercial flights.

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