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Virgin Orbit's Rocket-Launching Plane Keeps Taking Test Flights with LauncherOne

The dazzling first trip to space by Virgin Galactic's crewed SpaceShipTwo Unity may have grabbed headlines last week, but another Virgin space launch company recently hit a milestone of its own.

In November, a specially modified 747-400 cruised through the air, lugging a 70-foot-long rocket under its wing, in the first successful test flight for Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne. More test flights followed in early December.

While the ultimate aim is to launch satellites from this "flying launchpad," the mid-November test flight proved the basic concept is sound. Engineers now know the rocket pairs seamlessly with "Cosmic Girl" — the name for the custom-fit 747 — and previous mating and taxi tests with the rocket-plane duo also went seamlessly. [Virgin Orbit's Carrier Plane Meets Rocket for 1st Time]


In November 2018, Virgin Orbit successfully test-flew a specially modified aircraft carrying a 70-foot-long rocket booster. The plane could someday act as a "flying launchpad" for small satellite launches. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit/Twitter)

According to Virgin Orbit, which is a spinoff of Virgin Galactic, the first satellites from this initiative are set to fly into orbit early in 2019, providing an extensive test campaign goes as planned. The next steps include more Cosmic Girl flight tests where engineers gather data about the plane, rocket, avionics and flight computers. Another key milestone will be when Cosmic Girl drops an unpowered rocket during a future flight, "generating critical data about Cosmic Girl's and the rocket's performance as it freefalls through the atmosphere," Virgin Orbit representatives said in a statement. 


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But company representatives took this first flight as a welcome opportunity to announce progress in the Virgin Orbit initiative, which is trying to compete with other companies launching small cubesats and other small satellites using traditional rockets. Indeed, on Dec. 16, spacecraft startup Rocket Lab successfully delivered 13 small NASA satellites into orbit.

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In the face of this competition, Virgin Orbit's own test flight flew flawlessly.

"The vehicles flew like a dream today," Kelly Latimer, Virgin Orbit chief pilot and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said in the statement, which was released Nov. 19. "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."

Sister company Virgin Galactic made headlines of its own on Dec. 13, when the VSS Unity test vehicle successfully rocketed two test pilots beyond the boundary of space — by one definition, anyway. VSS Unity's powered-on engines propelled the vehicle to 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) in altitude. That's a squeak higher than the United States Air Force's definition of space, but well below the better-known Karman line boundary at 62 miles (100 km) up.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.