For the first time, Virgin Orbit has strapped its 21-meter rocket to a modified 747 aircraft and taken to the skies. The company performed this "captive-carry" test flight on Sunday in Victorville, located to the northeast of Los Angeles.
“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer said in a news release. “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 weve trained for in the simulators.”
Earlier this month, the company had conducted a series of tests that involved mating the LauncherOne rocket to the aircraft, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, and then performing taxiing tests. But Sunday's flight represents a new phase of airborne tests that will include "several more" flights of the aircraft with and without the rocket attached. These tests will ensure that Cosmic Girl and the rocket behave as anticipated during flight.
The final step before an actual in-air rocket launch will involve at least one drop test, in which the carbon-fiber rocket will be released from the 747 aircraft without firing its engine, in order to gather data about its free-fall performance through the atmosphere.
Delayed to 2019
Virgin Orbit has made considerable progress this year toward launching its rocket, but, after Sunday's test, company founder Richard Branson acknowledged that milestone will slip a bit. "We look forward to reaching orbit in early 2019," Branson wrote in a blog entry.
When it begins operational missions, the company plans to fly Cosmic Girl to an altitude of about 10 kilometers, where the plane will release the 25.8-ton rocket and then veer away. The rocket's Newton 3 engine will then fire, pushing the rocket toward space. The two-stage LauncherOne vehicle will have the capacity to carry up to 500kg to low-Earth orbit for about $10 million.
Virgin Orbit had been targeting about a dozen commercial flights in 2019, but that was predicated on a test launch this year. It is not clear how many flights the company will undertake next year, but getting to the captive-carry milestone nonetheless represents significant progress.
The company is hoping to become the second among a new wave of rocket companies that offer commercial launch services for small satellites and other payloads into low-Earth orbit for discount prices. Another competitor, Rocket Lab, just completed its third mission last week. A number of other providers are rushing to the launch pad as well.
Listing image by Virgin Orbit