Virgin Orbit Performs LauncherOne Aircraft Flight Tests

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl with pylon
Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747, named "Cosmic Girl," is seen here with the pylon fitted to its left wing that LauncherOne rockets will attach to for the company's air-launch missions. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

WASHINGTON — The carrier aircraft for Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne system has performed a series of test flightsin preparation for upcoming flights with the rocket attached.

The flights of the company's Boeing 747 aircraft, nicknamed "Cosmic Girl," were the first since the company installed a pylon on the plane's left wing that will be used to carry the LauncherOne rocket on future flights of the air-launch system.

The company disclosed few details about the test flights, but flight tracking services such as Flightradar24 list three flights of the aircraft in recent days, most recently Aug. 27, taking off from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. The flights ranged in duration from one and a half to three and a half hours in airspace over the Mojave Desert and over the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. [Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne: An Air-Launched Rocket in Pictures]

The company installed the pylon about a month ago, attached to a point on the wing between the fuselage and the inner engine designed to ferry a fifth, non-operational engine. Those test flights went "extremely well," according to a company official, calling it a "big milestone" as the company.

Virgin Orbit's "Cosmic Girl" aircraft during a test flight to study the aerodynamic characteristics of the LauncherOne pylon attached to its left wing. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

In a commercial space panel discussion Aug. 1 at a meeting of the Air Line Pilots Association here, Todd Ericson, vice president of safety and flight test at sister company Virgin Galactic said a series of "envelope expansion" test flights of the 747 with the pylon was scheduled for the coming weeks. The company then plans to carry out a series of captive carry test flights with a model of the LauncherOne rocket, culminating in a test where the rocket is dropped.

If successful, those tests would clear the way for a first orbital launch attempt by LauncherOne "by the end of the year," Ericson said.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.