MOJAVE — Virgin Orbit successfully completed a drop test of its LauncherOne rocket Wednesday morning, releasing a dummy version of the rocket launcher from the 747 carrier aircraft over Edwards Air Force Base in one of the final tests before making its first launch.
Company officials called the test “incredibly successful.”
“Today’s test was a monumental step forward for us. It’s the capstone to a thorough development program, not just for a rocket but for our carrier aircraft, our ground support equipment and all of our flight procedures,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a release about the test flight. “I’m extremely proud of the team for getting us to this point, and for their spectacular performance today. I’ve told them to take a few hours now to celebrate — our first launch campaign begins in the morning.”
Virgin Orbit is headquartered in Long Beach, where the company is developing its two-stage LauncherOne launch vehicle, but the firm’s rocket motor testing uses test facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The “flying launch pad” that is the modified 747 airliner known as “Cosmic Girl” has also been completing test flights at the Mojave site progressing toward the first launch test. The aircraft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port runway for Wednesday’s test at 8:43 a.m.
The airplane carries the LauncherOne rocket beneath a wing to launch altitude at 35,000 feet, at which point it is released, the rocket motor is lit and it carries a payload of up to 500 kilograms, or about 1,100 pounds, into orbit.
In Wednesday’s test, the dummy LauncherOne, without a rocket motor, was released over the testing range at Edwards AFB from 35,000 feet altitude to test the characteristics for the release and to monitor the few critical seconds after the rocket is free, to ensure a clean separation from the aircraft.
The test also observed how the rocket freefalls through the air.
“The whole flight went incredibly well. The release was extremely smooth, and the rocket fell away nicely,” Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer said. “There was a small roll with the aircraft, just as we expected. Everything matched what we’d seen in the simulators well — in fact, the release dynamics and the aircraft handling qualities were both better than we expected. This was the best kind of test flight sortie from a test pilot’s perspective — an uneventful one.”
Last fall, “captive carry” test flights began, with an empty rocket mounted beneath the wing to test how the airplane performed in flight with the addition. These flight tests then progressed to using a rocket loaded with the full weight of an actual mission.
With the drop test completed, finalizing the rocket assembly will take place later this month, and then it will be subjected to a series of checks and rehearsals prior to the first launch to orbit later this year, officials said.
The initial test launch will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port, which will also be one of several launch sites for Virgin Orbit going forward. The mobility of the launch system, allowing for launches from sites with little ground infrastructure, is touted as a key benefit to the air launch system.
Virgin Orbit also recently announced agreements to launch from Guam, the United Kingdom and Japan.