For some time now, Virgin Orbit and its imaginative CEO Richard Branson have been talking about fixing a rocket to the wing of a modified 747 and using it to fire satellites into space. The company is now one step closer to giving this audacious plan a go, after successfully integrating its LauncherOne rocket into its Cosmic Girl mothership ahead of the first test flights.

Virgin Orbit is another Virgin spinoff that, much like its close relative Virgin Galactic, is hoped to lift Branson's business operations out beyond the stratosphere. While Virgin Galactic is built to take tourists to space, Virgin Orbit will instead focus on delivering customer payloads into orbit.

This begins with a modified 747 called Cosmic Girl, which carries a set of pylons beneath its left wing to accommodate the company's purpose-built LauncherOne rocket. The plan is to have Cosmic Girl carry LauncherOne to an altitude of 35,000 ft (10,700 m) and release it. At this point, the rocket fires up its main engine, followed by its upper stage engines, and blasts the payload into space, while Cosmic Girl comes down like a regular 747 and prepares to go again.

Last month, Virgin Orbit showed off its Cosmic Girl mothership in flight with the rocket-holding pylons in place. The latest step forward took place at Long Beach Airport in California, where the Virgin Orbit team actually fixed the rocket onto those pylons for the first time and carried out some on-ground tests to make sure all electrics, software and mechanics were in working order.

LauncherOne measures 70 ft (21 m) long and has the capacity to carry payloads as small as a loaf of bread or as big as a fridge. Cosmic Girl, meanwhile, is the first 747 to have ever been converted into a rocket launcher, and will be able to fly thousands of miles in any direction and deliver goods to orbit at 24 hours notice – at least according to Virgin Orbit, which says the current wait times for such services are 18 to 24 months.

The company now plans to move onto test flights, the first of which will involve simply releasing the rocket and letting it free fall to the ground while data is collected along the way. Virgin orbit says LauncherOne will engage its thrusters and fly into orbit early next year for further testing, with the first commercial flights slated for 2021.

Source: Virgin Orbit

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