Cosmic Girl, a converted Virgin Atlantic plane formerly used by passengers, took the 25,800kg rocket over southern California skies under its wing, acting as a “flying launch pad”.
The captive carry test is the latest step in Virgin Orbit’s aim to send its first LauncherOne rocket into space in early 2019, blasting satellites as small as a loaf of bread or as large as a household refrigerator, which could be used to provide internet access to remote areas or track weather.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with the team on several occasions recently and see first-hand the progress being made,” Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said.
“There are many challenges to overcome ahead, but the excellent data and performance in all aspects of this latest test flight is really encouraging.”
Cosmic Girl serves as a launch pad for the LauncherOne, taking the rocket to an altitude of more than 30,000 feet, before thrusters send it off into outer space at speeds of 17,500mph, over 20 times the speed of sound.
“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit chief pilot Kelly Latimer.
“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.”