The runway is now clear for Virgin Orbit’s first-ever launch. Virgin Orbit is a dedicated launch service for satellites with a mission to launch satellites into space in great numbers at low cost.
On Sunday (April 12), the company completed the final test of its development program, sending its carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, aloft over the Southern California desert with an orbital rocket beneath its wing.
The captive-carry trial was “a complete, end-to-end launch rehearsal that exercises all of our ground operations; our mission control; all of our communications systems and protocols; all of our range assets; and our carrier aircraft’s takeoff, flyout, pull-up maneuver and return-to-base operations,” Virgin Orbit representatives wrote in a blog post Friday (April 10) that described the test.
Virgin Orbit has conducted captive-carry flights before, but the company filled the 70-foot-long (21 meters) LauncherOne rocket’s propellant tanks with water on those jaunts. On Sunday, the tanks contained cryogenic liquid nitrogen, a substance much more akin to the liquid oxygen they’ll hold during operational flights.
Sunday’s flight capped a successful development campaign that has also included a drop test last year, in which Cosmic Girl released a rocket that fell passively to Earth. So Virgin Orbit is now ready to take the next big step: a test launch. But it’s not clear at the moment when that mission will get off the ground.
Like Virgin Galactic, Orbit employs an air-launch strategy: During operational flights, Cosmic Girl will drop LauncherOne at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,700 m), and the rocket will then make its own way to space. The company will specialize in launching relatively small satellites; LauncherOne is capable of delivering about 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms) to a variety of destinations in low Earth orbit, company representatives have said.