How Are Satellites Launched Into Orbit?

Hold on tight, Junior Astronaut, because you're sending your very own tiny satellite to space! (Don't know what we're talking about? Check out our Nanonaut Programme).

We bet you're eager to boast to your friends about your Nanonaut roaming in space. But can you explain how your satellite got there? Because if you're really passionate about science, you should.

So, do you know how satellites are launched into orbit?

Well, there are two methods, depending on the weight of the satellites.

Let's find out together how your very own satellite and other heavier artificial satellites make it to space.

Method 1: The Rocket Launch

How to launch heavy satellites into orbit

Heavy satellites are launched into orbit with the help of rockets fueled by propellant. The trick is to give the rocket enough power and lots, lots, lots of fuel to thrust above Earth's atmosphere, where it can release the super-heavy satellite.

So that's it. Questions?

Just kiddin'. We've got plenty more to tell you.

Step 1: Escaping Earth's gravity efficiently

Rockets can carry multiple satellites at a time and even transport satellites as large as several tons. But, to do so, they require impressive amounts of fuel. And lots of fuel means lots of money.

That's why engineers need to find ingenious ways to keep energy consumption as low as possible. Do you know how they manage?

First, they launch the rocket from a vertical position. As you already might know, a rocket's motor is at its bottom. Once the launching procedure begins, the rocket's propellants start burning, and flames come out of the exhaust system, pushing into the ground and helping the rocket escape gravity. This way, the rocket can penetrate Earth's atmosphere faster and with less fuel. Witty, right?

Secondly, engineers create a smart rocket control mechanism based on an inertial guidance system. This system helps the rocket make the necessary adjustments to stay on the course of its established flight plan.

Here's a cool fact about rocket flight plans: most rockets are programmed to fly towards East. Why? Because Earth rotates East, and this flight route boosts the rocket's speed, lowering energy consumption.

Step 2: Release the satellites into space

Once the rocket makes it (whoop-whoop-hurray) around 200 kilometres above Earth, it can release the satellites from its cargo. But how do the satellites stay into place?

Here's where the physics "magic" takes over. The satellite manages to retain part of the impulse from the moving rocket and continues to fly (something physicists call momentum).

With Earth's gravity pulls it in one direction, and the momentum carrying it in another, a balance is formed. As if by magic — don't be fooled, it's physics — the satellite starts orbiting Earth.

Method 1, The Air Launch

How your tiny satellite will get to space

For our Nanonaut program, we've partnered up with Virgin Orbit, the most fantastic satellite launch service. Your tiny satellite will ride on Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, from where it will begin its orbiting dance around our planet.

Virgin Orbit's launching strategy is entirely different from the traditional rocket launch. How so? Well, Virgin Orbit launches its satellite rockets not from the ground, but from the air. Wondering how it's possible?

A two-stage launch

Well, the explanation is simple. Since it only carries smaller satellites, Virgin Orbit can use a two-stage launching strategy. It uses a carrier plane to lift the rocket with the satellites higher into the air, thus saving a lot of fuel.

In our case, the Nanonaut will be on board Launcher Once, which will be attached to Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit's carrier plane. The carrier plane will take the rocket (with your Nanonaut) up at more than 10 000 meters into the air.

The pilot will then pitch the carrier plane up to a 30 degrees angle, orienting the LauncherOne rocket towards space. When the position is locked, the pilot will launch the rocket. Vooom, LauncherOne will ignite its engine and hurdle towards space. Practically, Cosmic Girl will ditch the rocket and ruuun.

Once the rocket will escape Earth's gravity, just like in the case of traditional launches, it will release the satellites into orbit.

Why is this air-launch strategy awesome? Because it drastically reduces the quantity of fuel needed, thus lowering costs, and making satellite launches more affordable. Which is simply amazing, given the importance of satellites.

Ready to send your satellite to space?

So there you have it! That's how your very own satellite will be launched into space onboard Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne.

So what are you waiting for? Learn more about the Nanonaut Programme and discover how to send your very own satellite into space.