A Successful Test Flight
Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of Virgin Galactic, flew its LauncherOne rocket for the first time ever this past Sunday, November 18. The company performed the test flight with the 21-meter rocket strapped to the wing of a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft nicknamed Cosmic Girl. The 80-minute-long captive-carry test flight took off from California's Victorville Airport, northeast of Los Angeles. “The vehicles flew like a dream today. Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators,” Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer said in a news release, according to a statement.
Virgin Orbit plans to use Cosmic Girl as a first stage launch platform (sometimes called a mothership) to launch satellite-carrying rockets into low-Earth orbit. The plane will fly the LauncherOne rocket to an altitude of 35,000 feet. The rocket will then be dropped and fired up to launch lightweight satellites, with a maximum payload of 1,100 pounds, into space.
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket flies for the first time, tucked under the wings of an aircraft. (Credit: Virgin Orbit) The LauncherOne rocket successfully performed a number of tests earlier this month, including some in which it practiced connecting with Cosmic Girl. This flight, however, is the first of the rocket’s airborne tests. Now, the aircraft will undergo testing with and without the rocket attached. Before Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne can perform an in-air rocket launch, they must successfully complete at least one drop test. In this test, the rocket will be released from the aircraft without turning its engine on. This will inform the team at Virgin Orbit about how the rocket performs in free-fall. Virgin Orbit aims to provide low-cost, quick satellite launches. The company is working to ultimately launch small payloads into low-Earth orbit for both commercial and government contractors. The company has already won contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and Sitael, an Italian micro-satellite company. The company plans to begin these flights in 2019 should the rest of the testing be successful.