Space

Virgin Orbit fixes rocket-carrying pylons to Cosmic Girl mothership

Virgin Orbit fixes rocket-carr...
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership in action
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership in action
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The pylon that will carry rockets aboard Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership, seen in red
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The pylon that will carry rockets aboard Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership, seen in red
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership in action
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Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership in action
Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl mothership that will carry the team’s hopes and dreams
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Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl mothership that will carry the team’s hopes and dreams
Virgin Orbit is edging ever closer to its goal of firing rockets into space from an airborne 747
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Virgin Orbit is edging ever closer to its goal of firing rockets into space from an airborne 747
Virgin Orbit hopes to use its Cosmic Girl mothership to fire rockets into space from midair
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Virgin Orbit hopes to use its Cosmic Girl mothership to fire rockets into space from midair
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership during flight testing
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Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership during flight testing
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership undergoes flight testing earlier in the year
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Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership undergoes flight testing earlier in the year
Virgin Orbit hopes to use its Cosmic Girl mothership to fire rockets into space from midair
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Virgin Orbit hopes to use its Cosmic Girl mothership to fire rockets into space from midair
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership
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Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket under development
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Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket under development
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket
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Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket
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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."

The pylon that will carry rockets aboard Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership, seen in red
The pylon that will carry rockets aboard Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership, seen in red

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 seperate 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.

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership undergoes flight testing earlier in the year
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl mothership undergoes flight testing earlier in the year

Virgin 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.

Source: Virgin Orbit

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4 comments
Deres
The other advantage of a plane-based space launcher are : - you avoid the max pressure point (combination of speed and air pressure) - you have no risk of bird strike - you have no risk of ice accumulation prior to launch
Gregg Eshelman
They're using a little known feature of most 747's. It's a fifth engine mounting hardpoint. It's meant for ferrying a damaged or replacement engine in cases where truck or rail transport isn't available or a replacement engine needs to be moved *right now*. In the 1960's when the 747 was being designed it seemed like it would be an often used feature, but other means of transporting the big engines soon caught up. Nevertheless, the mounting point was 'baked into' the design of the 747 and removing it would require additional FAA design review and certification.
ljaques
I worry that, as we remove debris from our oceans, we're simply moving it into orbit. :-/ Kudos, Virgin, for brilliant thinking on reducing the cost of a space launch.
Craig Jennings
Great addendum about the 5th engine mounting hardpoint Gregg!