Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Long Beach, CA, United States (4E) – Spaceflight firm Virgin Orbit appears to be on course to launch the first test flight of its revolutionary LauncherOne two-stage orbital launch vehicle in the first quarter of 2019.
Virgin Orbit last week attached a prototype LauncherOne to a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft named Cosmic Girl for the first time at an airport in Long Beach, California. The company hopes to send the rocket into orbit early next year.
Founded in 2017, Virgin Orbit is a company within the Virgin Group that will provide launch services for small satellites. It focuses on launching small satellites (smallsats), or those with a mass lighter than 500 kg.
LauncherOne stands 16 meters tall and weighs 26,000 kg. It’s designed to carry smallsats into orbit around Earth. LauncherOne is a two stage air launch-to-orbit rocket that wil launch smallsat payloads into Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) following air launch from a carrier aircraft at high altitude.
SSOs are suitable for CubeSats and small payloads. Cost per LauncherOne launch is less than $12 million. LauncherOne can loft a 360 kg payload to 500 km SSO and a 500 kg payload to 230 km SSO.
“The team were carrying out the integration check of the rocket with Cosmic Girl to verify mechanical, electrical, software, and dynamics all work together for the first time,” said Virgin Orbit owner Richard Branson. “It’s an incredibly exciting moment for us, as Virgin Orbit’s first test flights move ever closer.”
To prepare for the upcoming test flights, engineers altered Cosmic Girl and remove dnon-essential fixtures to cut down on weight. Cosmic Girl is now designed to take off carrying LauncherOne under one of its wings.
The plane will fly LauncherOne to an altitude of 9,000 meters. At that point, the rocket will release from the plane; ignite its motors to rocket into orbit at speeds of up to 28,000 km/h, which is 20 times the speed of sound.
Virgin Orbit believes using a plane to launch a rocket Virgin Orbit will permit satellite launches on shorter timelines and at lower prices than the traditional land launch from a spaceport. It eventually hopes to launch from many different locations around the world.
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