Virgin Orbit completes successful captive carry test flight with 'flying launchpad'

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl has taken to the skies with a rocket tucked under its wing for the first time. The specially modified 747-400 carrying a 70-foot-long rocket under its wing soared through the air as part of a successful test flight for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

The flawless test flight took place in the cloudless skies over Southern California, with the small satellite launch company proving that its carbon-fiber two-stage rocket works perfectly as a pair with Cosmic Girl, the customised former passenger aircraft that serves as the company’s ‘flying launch pad.’ The successful test puts more air under the wings - and fins - of the company’s plans to reach orbit in early 2019.

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl takes flight

The test, which Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart described as "a picture-perfect flight, and big step forward for our program," took place in Victorville, California - a test facility close both to Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach factory and to one of its operational launch sites, the Mojave Air and Space Port.

"The vehicles flew like a dream today," said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col, US Air Force, Ret.) "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's Cosmic Girl takes flight

This successful flight marks the start of a new phase in Virgin Orbit’s extensive test flight campaign. As part of that program, the company will conduct several more flights of its 747-400, some with a LauncherOne rocket attached and some without; each of which will allow the launch provider to gather critical data to further prove out the vehicle pair. With mountains of data already collected about the smooth handling of the system, future tests will focus on further proving out the robustness of the company’s novel pylon, the carbon-fiber rocket itself, and the performance of the cutting-edge, light-weight avionics and flight computers on board the rocket. This portion of the years-long testing regime will conclude with a drop test, during which a rocket will be released from Cosmic Girl - without igniting - generating priceless data about Cosmic Girl’s pylon and the rocket’s behaviour as it freefalls through the atmosphere.

This flight is the latest in a string of major steps forward for Virgin Orbit. The rocket was first mated to the rocket in late October, and high-speed taxi tests were conducted only a week prior to this test flight. On the strength of that steady progress, Virgin Orbit projects its first space shot to be completed in early 2019. The launch provider expects to conduct multiple trips to orbit in the year ahead, and has already begun to build, test and integrate the rockets for those subsequent missions at its manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California.

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl takes flight

Dan Hart capped the day by saying, "I’m extremely proud of Kelly, the flight crew, and all of our hard-working team. Their professionalism really shone through today, with our rocket and our plane up in the skies on a beautiful California day. There’s still important work to do, but I know our team and our customers were all thrilled to see us taking this important step forward."

Head over to Richard’s blog to read his views on the test flight, and Virgin Orbit to find out more.

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