Virgin Orbit’s rocket flies strapped to the wing of an airplane for the first time

Launch provider Virgin Orbit, the spinoff of Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, put its new rocket in the air for the first time this weekend — though the vehicle didn’t go to space. On Sunday, the company performed its first captive-carry test flight with the rocket, keeping it firmly attached to the wing of its carrier airplane. The rocket’s engine didn’t ignite, but the flight clears the way for the very first test launch of Virgin Orbit’s system next year.

Officially formed in 2017, Virgin Orbit is developing a new rocket called LauncherOne, a vehicle that’s designed to put satellites into low Earth orbit. Unlike most rockets in operation today, LauncherOne is designed to take off from the sky rather than from the ground. A Boeing 747-400 airplane named Cosmic Girl will carry LauncherOne to a height of 35,000 feet. From there, the rocket will drop from the wing and ignite its main engine a few moments later in order to climb into space.

It’s a launch technique that’s similar to how Virgin Galactic plans to send tourists into space via a spaceplane that deploys from underneath the wing of a carrier aircraft. Virgin Orbit’s rocket, however, won’t have people on board; in fact, its cargo is meant to be small. LauncherOne is designed to put payloads weighing between 660 and 1,100 pounds in low Earth orbit. It’s a small capacity compared to other larger vehicles, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which can haul up to 50,000 pounds into the same region of space. But like many other fledgling launch providers, Virgin Orbit is focused on small- to medium-sized satellites, which have become more ubiquitous over the last decade.

In recent months, Virgin Orbit has been gearing up for its first test flight by doing high-speed taxi tests of Cosmic Girl, and in October, the company mated LauncherOne to the airplane for the first time. And Virgin Orbit says this recent captive-carry test went just as expected. “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,” Virgin Orbit’s chief pilot Kelly Latimer said in a statement. “From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”

Image: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit plans to do many more test flights with Cosmic Girl; some will have LauncherOne attached, and others will be solo flights. The next major step is the first drop test, in which a rocket will be deployed from the airplane, but it will not ignite. After that, it’ll be time for the very first test launch, which is slated for 2019, according to Virgin Orbit.

If all goes well with the testing program, Virgin Orbit plans to do multiple launches next year. In fact, the company says it’s already building and testing vehicles for future commercial flights. And beyond that, Virgin Orbit has big plans for the years ahead. It’s made deals to launch satellites for the US Department of Defense. And the company has goals to expand soon, too. While the company is primarily focused on launching out of Southern California for now, the team hopes to launch from the UK by 2021.

It’s possible that Virgin Orbit will announce even more launch locations in the coming years, as company officials say it’s fairly easy to move the system to new areas. “The launchpad is the airplane,” Will Pomerantz, the vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, told The Verge in July. “So you don’t have to lay all that ground infrastructure.”

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