In the next step on its path to getting its low earth orbit payload launch system up and running, Virgin Orbit successfully took its LauncherOne system out for a spin with an actual rocket attached under its wing.
The company’s specially modified 747-400 carried a 70-foot-long rocket as part of a test flight proving that the carbon-fiber, two-stage rocket works with the plane.
It’s a necessary step toward Virgin Orbit’s plans to begin launching rockets early next year.
The launch took place in Victorville, Calif., near Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach factory and the Mojave Air and Space Port, which serves as an operational launch site for Virgin.
“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col, US Air Force, Ret.), in a statement. “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.”
The company said that it expects to conduct several more flights of its 747-400, both with and without the LauncherOne rocket. The critical culmination of all of these tests will be a drop test, when a rocket will be released from the 747 (dubbed “Cosmic Girl”) without igniting.
That test is designed to provide data about the systems aboard the 747 that control detachment and about the rocket’s performance in an atmospheric free-fall.
Virgin Orbit is one of several new companies racing to get new launch systems in orbit. Already capacity-constrained as companies push to launch new satellites into low earth orbit, companies like Virgin Orbit, RocketLab, Relativity Space, ARCA, AstroSpace, Blue Origin, Generation Orbit, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and others around the world have raised hundreds of millions to take payloads into space.