WASHINGTON – Virgin Orbit conducted a landmark test on its LauncherOne airlift on July 10th, abandoning an inert carrier vehicle during one of the last milestones before the vehicle's first orbital launch attempt.
The Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 aircraft took off from Mojave, California, at 11:43 am ET, carrying an enlarged version of the LauncherOne rocket, although filled with water rather than propellant. Half an hour later, the aircraft dropped the rocket at an altitude of 10,700 meters above a test beach located near Edwards Air Force Base.
The test aimed at checking the dynamics of the release of the rocket, which, as part of a real mission, would be dropped for several seconds before igniting its first-stage engine. During this test, the rocket simply fell to the ground, impacting an isolated test area.
The company said the test was a success. "The whole flight went incredibly well. The exit was extremely smooth and the rocket fell well, "said Kelly Latimer, Virgin Orbit's leading test pilot, in a statement issued after the flight." The aircraft behaved like Simulations at the time of publication, she noted: "It was the best type of test flight outing from the pilot's point of view – an event without a story."
The fall test has concluded the flight test program for Virgin Orbit. This program began with a series of flights to check the operation with a launcher adapter installed on the left wing of the aircraft. The company then made several captive carryover flights, with a LauncherOne attached to this adapter but not released.
"Today's test was a huge step forward for us," said Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, in a statement. "This is the cornerstone of a comprehensive development program, not only for a rocket, but also for our aircraft carriers, our ground support equipment and all our flight procedures."
In addition to the flight test program, the company built and tested the first and second stages of LauncherOne. Virgin Orbit has announced it has completed "intense fights" in both ground stages.
Virgin Orbit is finalizing the assembly of the LauncherOne that will perform the first orbital mission. The vehicle will be completed later in July, the company said, and tested before its first launch. In a statement, the company said it was planning to launch "later this year," but industry sources said they expect the company to be ready to attempt a launch in late summer or early fall.
"I'm extremely proud of the team that brought us to this point and their spectacular performance today," Hart told Virgin Orbit employees. "I told them to take a few hours now to celebrate – our first launching campaign starts in the morning."