Virgin Orbit have successfully launched their third captive flight with the fully-loaded rocket. LauncherOne blasted off from Mojave Airport on a test flight with Cosmic Girl on Sunday morning. The primary purpose of these flights was to conduct several dry runs of Virgin Orbit’s launch day maneuvers, including flying the prelaunch ‘racetrack’ flight pattern and the rocket drop maneuver.
The next big event in Virgin Orbit’s extensive test program is the upcoming drop test, which the team expects to accomplish very soon. For this test, they will release the fully-loaded rocket from the aircraft and let it drop to the ground. In addition to being the ultimate test of Cosmic Girl’s bespoke rocket release mechanisms, this team also allows the engineers at Virgin Orbit to verify their calculations about how the rocket will fly when it’s not attached to the aircraft and has not yet ignited its rocket engine.
William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects, said: “To those following along at home, these tests may have looked fairly similar to our previous two captive carry tests, but getting this additional data and additional practice for all of our flight crews is key. Demonstrating the ability to turnaround and conduct one flight less than 72 hours after the other—and over a weekend, no less—is also a great demonstration of the flexibility we get from air launch. The flight was another big success: the aircraft and rocket performed very well.”
If you take a close look at the photos, you may also spot one fun new upgrade for the rocket: a new paint job on the fins. Pomerantz explained why the new ‘paint job’ was so important: “Our engineering team had a requirement for very different visual markings on the fins. These had to be different on each fin, and on each side of the fin. These markings will be used as part of our analysis of the rocket’s flight during our upcoming drop test. If you make each fin look different it becomes easy to tell which fin you are looking at in every photo or video clip.”
He adds that for technical reasons, Virgin Orbit have also used a certain type of paint which comes in a restricted selection of colours, which meant there was a design limitation.
Designer Heidi Rueff came up with the fun design for the fins. This was the fins’ first outing in public. Pomerantz adds: “It’s inspired by an old idea called Dazzle Camo, which was a wild and inspired design used by the Navy in World War I. I first learned about it from an episode of Roman Mars’s podcast, 99 percent invisible, which I passed on to Heidi and [Virgin Orbit Creative Director Jonathan Lo]. They went and did what they do so well, which is to create something that’s both functional and beautiful.”
Richard Branson paid a visit to the Virgin Orbit control centre.