Virgin Galactic’s sister company, Virgin Orbit, has conducted a drop test of its air-launched satellite booster over California in a key step towards space missions.
The 21m LauncherOne rocket was released from a Boeing 747 flying almost 11km over an Edwards Air Force Base test range in the Mojave Desert.
The purpose of the test was to observe how the rocket detached from the 747’s wing and its freefall to the desert before the first actual orbital launch later this year. The test did not involve the ignition of the rocket motor.
“The release was extremely smooth, and the rocket fell away nicely,” chief test pilot Kelly Latimer said.
Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said it was “a monumental step forward” for the project. “It’s the capstone to a thorough development programme not just for a rocket, but for our carrier aircraft, our ground support equipment and all of our flight procedures,” he said.
The California-based company founded by Richard Branson will use the system to launch small satellites — weighing from about 300kg to 500kg — into space.
The 747 — named Cosmic Girl — will fly from multiple locations around the globe, enabling access to orbits that are more difficult to reach from fixed launch sites.
Virgin Orbit recently announced an agreement with ANA Holdings, parent of All Nippon Airways, to bring its service to Japan. The memorandum of understanding calls for ANA to evaluate its capability to provide ground support, maintenance and possibly aircraft.
Virgin Orbit plans that its initial launch missions will fly out of Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. Other sites may include Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, the UK’s Spaceport Cornwall and the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport in Italy.
Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is moving personnel from Mojave, where it developed its space tourism rocket plane, to Spaceport America in southern New Mexico in preparation for commercial operations.
Virgin Galactic this week announced a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia and plans to go public.