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Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard Branson's newest aerospace business, has taken a major step toward its plans to begin launching rockets next year. On November 18, 2018, the company proved its mid-air launch system “LauncherOne” and “Cosmic Girl”, a specially modified Boeing 747 airliner, are one of a pair: the aircraft, carrying an orbital rocket attached to its wing, took part in the successful completion of LauncherOne’s first test flight over the skies of California. The test, which Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart described as "a picture-perfect flight”, also marked the first-ever time a 747 jetliner has carried a rocket.

Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic Girl” jet airplane, a modified version of a commercial 747-400 aircraft, took off from the company’s test facility in Victorville, California, on November 18, 2018, for the first captive carry test of the LauncherOne system. The aircraft, carrying a 70-foot long (21 meters) rocket attached to its left wing, performed a successful test flight that lasted 80 minutes total, as it flew over the Southern California region, including one of Virgin Orbit’s operational launch sites, the Mojave Air and Space Port.

 

[ Photo: https://mma.prnewswire.com/media/786838/Virgin_Orbit_Cosmic_Girl_747.jpg]

Virgin Orbit, an offshoot of Virgin Galactic, aims to provide an affordable launch service for small satellites by using rockets launched in mid-air from the 747-400 airliner, instead of the usual ground launch. The “Cosmic Girl” plane, as it has been dubbed, would act as a first stage launch platform for the LauncherOne integrated system, carrying the rocket to an altitude of over 30,000 feet; it would then release the rocket and launch the lightweight satellite payload into the low-Earth orbit. The 747 carrier plane would thus be capable of operating from many locations, without the need for costly, fixed ground infrastructure.

The carbon-fiber two-stage rocket was first mated to the 747 carrier aircraft in late October 2018. High-speed taxi tests followed, and were performed only a week prior to the first test flight. Virgin Orbit will now proceed with its extensive test flight campaign, including more captive carry tests with the rocket attached to the aircraft. At the finish line, the company will have to conduct a drop test, during which, the LauncherOne rocket will be released from the 747 “Cosmic Girl” in flight without igniting its engine, but free-falling through the atmosphere.

[ Photo: https://mma.prnewswire.com/media/786837/Virgin_Orbit_747.jpg]

Virgin Orbit’s first orbital flight is planned to take place in early 2019. Depending on the success of that flight, the company states it expects to conduct “multiple trips to orbit in the year ahead”. The satellite launch provider also says it has already begun to build, test and integrate the rockets for those subsequent missions at its manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California.

[ Photo: https://mma.prnewswire.com/media/786839/Virgin_Orbit_LauncherOne.jpg]

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group began research into small-satellite launch technology less than a decade ago, beginning work on its launch system in early 2015. At the time, the project belonged to sister company Virgin Galactic, but was later passed on to Virgin Orbit. Founded in 2017, it was established for the sole purpose of developing and eventually providing launch services for small satellites. Virgin Orbit is now one of several companies racing to get new launch systems into the low earth orbit, as the demand to launch smaller, less costly satellites, also more frequently, continues to rise.

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