LauncherOne starts flight testing with Cosmic Girl

Virgin Orbit’s ambition to reach space in early 2019 moved forward over the weekend with the successful flight of LauncherOne, the company’s small satellite launch vehicle.

Cosmic Girl carrying the LauncherOne rocket
Cosmic Girl carrying the LauncherOne rocket

Sir Richard Branson’s small satellite launch company demonstrated that LauncherOne, a 70-foot long carbon-fibre two-stage rocket, can be mated with Cosmic Girl, a customised 747-400 former passenger aircraft that serves as the company’s “flying launch pad.”

The test, described by Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart as “a picture-perfect flight, and a major step forward in our quest to bring a new capability to small satellite launch,” took place in Victorville, California, a test facility close to Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach factory and Mojave Air and Space Port.

Virgin Orbit’s flight crew assessed the take-off, landing, and low-speed handling and performance of the integrated system during the 80-minute flight on November 18, 2018.

“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.”

Future tests will focus on further proving out the robustness of the company’s modified 747, the carbon-fibre rocket, and the performance of the avionics and flight computers onboard the rocket. This portion of the extensive testing regime will conclude with a drop test, during which a rocket will be released from Cosmic Girl – without igniting – generating data about Cosmic Girl’s and the rocket’s performance as it freefalls through the atmosphere.

The rocket was first mated to the rocket in late October, and high-speed taxi tests were conducted a week prior to this test flight. 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 begun to build, test and integrate the rockets for those subsequent missions at its manufacturing facility in Long Beach, Calif.

“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,” Hart said.