Virgin successfully drops a rocket from a Boeing 747

Marco Green
July 11, 2019

Eastern, carrying a full-sized version of the LauncherOne rocket, although filled with water rather that propellants.

Virgin Orbit performed a key test of its LauncherOne air launch system July 10, dropping an inert vehicle from its carrier aircraft in one of the last milestones before the vehicle's first orbital launch attempt.

The company loaded a rocket onto its Boeing 747 launch aircraft - dubbed Cosmic Girl - and dropped a dummy LauncherOne rocket in flight over the Mojave desert. The company's modified 747 plane - which has a lower deck completely stripped of passenger seats and overhead compartments but retains airline crew bunks in the cabin and cockpit - can take off from a typical runway with a rocket tucked under its wing. "We'll be monitoring and rehearsing a million things, but this test is really all about those few seconds just after release, as we ensure the rocket and aircraft separate cleanly and observe how the rocket freefalls through the air", noted Virgin Orbit ahead of the test.

The drop test did not involve igniting the rocket, but it showed the flying launchpad's release system is working as designed.

The course flown by the Boeing 747-400 drop aircraft for Wednesday's successful test drop.

The Virgin Orbit LauncherOne project is one of many recent commercial space launch projects, not all of which have succeeded. "This was the best kind of test flight sortie from a test pilot's perspective - an uneventful one".

The first orbital flight of LauncherOne is the next big box to check. If everything goes as planned, Virgin Orbit's first official rocket launch will take place before summer ends, and the first launch for a customer will take place around a couple months after the first flight. "It's the capstone to a thorough development program not just for a rocket, but for our carrier aircraft, our ground support equipment, and all of our flight procedures".

This successful test paves the way for Virgin Orbit to make its final progression to launch.

Virgin Orbit's subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the same mid-air launch system to the US military, with a first mission slated for early next year. That vehicle will be completed later in July, the company said, and then undergo testing before its first launch.

That launch location will join other sites including the United States, Guam and United Kingdom, which Virgin Orbit says will provide satellite makers and governments more flexibility.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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