Virgin Orbit says it is close to launching a rocket to space for the first time, after it performed a successful test run over the Pacific Ocean.
The California-based company, a sister company of the Richard Branson-owned and space tourism-focused Virgin Galactic, revealed yesterday that it had completed a key launch rehearsal of its Cosmic Girl aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 plane, ahead of the first launch.
The plane is designed to carry a 16-meter (52 feet) rocket called LauncherOne under its wing up to an altitude of more than 10,500 meters (35,000 feet). Here, the plane will tilt up and then drop the rocket, which will ignite its engine and make the journey into orbit, carrying satellites weighing up to 500 kilograms.
The company has long-touted its flying launcher system, seen previously with vehicles such as Pegasus. Now, following this latest Launch Demo test, the company says it is closer than ever to achieve its goal of reaching space and beginning launches for customers.
The flight path taken by the plane yesterday.FLIGHTRADAR24/JONATHAN MCDOWELL (@PLANET4589)
The test was known as a cryogenic captive carry flight, and involved lofting the LauncherOne rocket into the air on board Cosmic Girl, without actually launching the rocket. The flight began and ended at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Mojave Desert.
This test marked the first time the rocket had been flown carrying cryogenic fuel, in this case safer liquid nitrogen as opposed to the fuel the rocket will ultimately use, liquid oxygen. Nonethless, this was a significant step up from previous tests that used water.
The plane was flown in the same pattern over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Los Angeles that will be used for the first flight of Launcher One. That looping path included an impressive pull-up maneuver, with the plane tilting up to practice launching the rocket into orbit.
An exact date for the first launch has not yet been set, with the company noting that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic had hampered planning. In March, Virgin Orbit was deemed an “essential service” by the US, meaning its employees were still allowed on site.
“With a robust plan for safe operations in place, we began bringing essential teammates back on site — but continue to have as much as 90% of our staff working remotely,” the company said in an update, adding that “steady progress” of its remote workers had enabled the Launch Demo to take place.
Last week, the company also announced it would be flying missions for the newly established U.S. Space Force in a deal said to be worth $35 million. The company is signed up for three launches, taking 44 small satellites to Earth orbit.
Until that happens, the company needs to get its first launch under its belt. And with a successful Launch Demo, they are now closing than ever to making that goal a reality.