Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit plans to launch satellite-ferrying rockets into low-Earth orbit from the wing of a converted commercial airliner. On Sunday, the company got one step closer to realizing the goal when it conducted the first captive carry of its rocket "Launcher One," strapped to the wing of a Boeing 747-400.
The company is steadily gaining momentum. Last month, Virgin Orbit hitched the rocket to the side of its jet for the first time, although the plane didn't take flight. On Sunday, the aerospace company made further progress by taking its plane, Cosmic Girl, into the sky in an effort to test what it calls a "flying launch pad."
Virgin Orbit shared the feat in a video:
Unlike Virgin Galactic, Branson's space tourism company that plans to take paying customers into low-Earth orbit, Virgin Orbit will launch small payloads for commercial and government contractors. The company has already won contracts with the Department of Defense and , among others.
Virgin Orbit will begin operations in 2019. Cosmic Girl will ferry Launcher One to an altitude of 35,000 feet and deploy lightweight satellites, with a maximum capacity of 1,100 pounds per payload. The company hopes to offset the typically exorbitant cost of satellite launches with quicker and more efficient methods that could see it conduct Smaller, lightweight payloads are key to that directive.
Because of its aerial deployment tech, Virgin Orbit is something of an outlier in the commercial rush to decrease the cost of rocket launches. The new space race has largely been characterized by companies such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Iridium One and Blue Origin, all of which conduct launches from the ground. In terms of aerial launch, Virgin Orbit is joined by Stratolaunch Systems, the company founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, famous for its six-engined mega-plane.
Sunday's milestone flight lasted 80 minutes, and tested the converted commercial airliner's performance with a rocket attached to its wing.
Virgin Orbit chief pilot Kelly Latimer lauded the performance in a Virgin Orbit statement:
“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.”
The work isn't done for Virgin Orbit, however. The company plans to conduct several more tests, including a drop test, when a rocket will be released from Cosmic Girl without igniting, before officially conducting its first launch in early 2019.