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Virgin Orbit is edging ever closer to its goal of firing rockets into space from an airborne 747, with the pylons that will carry its two-stage orbital launch vehicle, LauncherOne, to altitude now firmly fixed to the wing of its Cosmic Girl Mothership.
The Virgin spinoff company shares a similar approach to spacefaring with its sister company Virgin Galactic, which also seeks to use motherships to launch smaller vehicles into space. Where Galactic focuses on space tourism, however, Virgin Orbit is instead focused on placing satellites in orbit with unprecedented cost-efficiency.
The Cosmic Girl mothership that will carry the team's hopes and dreams had already been undergoing testing at its Mojave Desert base, and now the team reports that its first flights with the pylons attached were carried out as smoothly "as can be."
This mechanism is fixed to the underside of the 747's wing and will hold the LauncherOne rocket in place as the aircraft soars to an altitude of around 35,000 ft (10,700 m). Once there, the two-stage expendable rocket is released and fires up its main stage 73,500-lb (33,339-kg) engine for approximately three minutes.
The upper stage will then separate and carry out a series of burns totaling almost six minutes, lifting a customer's payload into orbit. Cosmic Girl then returns to an airport and undergoes preparations for its next flight.
irgin Orbit says using an airplane instead of a traditional pad to launch rockets will remove the uncertainties around weather and therefore avoid mission delays, as well as offer more flexibility for launch locations and better payload capacity.
Following these first test flights with the pylons in place, the team will now look to carry out test flights with the LauncherOne rocket taken along for the ride. Tests will then be conducted where the rockets are released and left to free fall to the ground to gather data along the way.
If those prove successful Virgin Orbit will start orbital test flights, with a view to launching commercial services in the UK by 2021.