Virgin Orbit Just Attached a Rocket to Its Cosmic Girl Mothership for the 1st Time

LauncherOne moves into position for attachment to Cosmic Girl.
Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit has put its satellite-launching system together for the first time.

The California-based company — part of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group — mated a LauncherOne rocket with its carrier plane, a modified 747 jet called Cosmic Girl, at Long Beach Airport on Wednesday (Oct. 24).

“The team were carrying out the integration check of the rocket with Cosmic Girl to verify [that] mechanical, electrical, software and dynamics all work together for the first time,” Branson wrote in a blog post today (Oct. 26). “It’s an incredibly exciting moment for us, as Virgin Orbit’s first test flights move ever closer.” [Gallery: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne Rocket for Satellite Missions]

That test-flight campaign will begin with “captive carry” missions, in which LauncherOne will stay attached to Cosmic Girl from liftoff to landing. The next step will be drop tests, which will allow engineers to study the rocket-release mechanism and LauncherOne’s flight through Earth’s atmosphere, Virgin Orbit representatives said.

Branson anticipates moving through these milestones rather quickly; in today’s blog post, he predicted that LauncherOne would reach orbit “early next year.” (That orbital pioneer won’t be the same rocket that linked up with Cosmic Girl this week, however; the latter booster’s final flight will be a drop test, Virgin Orbit representatives said.)

The 70-foot-long (21 meters) LauncherOne can deliver satellites weighing up to 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms) to a variety of low Earth orbits. Cosmic Girl will carry the booster to an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,700 m), at which point LauncherOne will separate and make its own way to space.

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