Just a week after the Fourth of July, a rocket launched high above California’s Mojave Desert. This was no mere tardy display of patriotism; the rocket’s launching team had been preparing for this moment for over four years. On July 10, Sir Richard Branson’s space startup Virgin Orbit fired the rocket at an altitude of 35,000 feet from a modified airplane. The effort was a “drop test,” meaning the rocket plunged to the earth rather than soaring into space, but for more reasons than this, it’s considered groundbreaking.
“What a moment: @virgin.orbit have released our fully built, fully loaded LauncherOne rocket from Cosmic Girl for the first time,” Branson wrote on Instagram just hours after the launch. “Congratulations to all the team.”
Virgin Orbit’s mission is to use the rocket to deploy small satellites into orbit. It will do so by launching not from the ground (as most rockets do), but from under the wing of Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft that is powered by four GE CF6 jet engines. The benefits of launching from a plane rather than a launch pad? It’s cheaper, it provides more specific placement in orbit, and going by plane (rather than by ground-based launch systems) has shorter wait times.
“We hope to open access to space for companies or organizations who want to put small satellites into orbit by making launch affordable and flexible,” Kelly Latimer, Cosmic Girl’s chief pilot, told GE Reports in an email in 2018. “[We want] to open up space to more people.”
Just after the launch, Latimer declared the endeavor to be a tremendous success. “The release was extremely smooth, and the rocket fell away nicely,” she said. “Everything matched what we’d seen in the simulators well — in fact, the release dynamics and the aircraft handling qualities were both better than we expected. This was the best kind of test flight sortie from a test pilot’s perspective — an uneventful one.”
Cosmic Girl, which has undergone significant refurbishing in order to be capable of tucking a 70-foot rocket under its left wing, flew back to the runway after its first successful dummy launch to prepare for future flights. Now that the company knows the rocket can successfully detach from the plane, the Virgin Orbit team will continue work on an orbital test rocket that will fire satellites into space once it’s released rather than falling to the ground. No rest for the weary, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told CNBC prior to the test launch: The company plans to get its first paying customer’s satellites into orbit “hopefully … before the end of the summer.”