Firing rockets from beneath the wings of an airborne 747 isn't the most conventional way to get satellites into space, but it might be among the most cost-effective. Virgin spinoff company Virgin Orbit has been awarded a license for its maiden attempt to do just that, with hopes of beginning commercial services before the year is out.
Virgin Orbit's space ambitions hinge on a similar methodology to sister company Virgin Galactic's, in that both aim to use motherships as high-flying launchpads for smaller vehicles to travel to space.
Where Virgin Galactic hopes to give rise to space tourism by carrying well-heeled thrill-seekers to suborbital altitudes inside supersonic spaceplanes, Virgin Orbit will instead focus in launching small satellites.
This starts with its Cosmic Girl mothership, a Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft that would fly to an altitude of around 35,000 ft (10,700 m) with a so-called LauncherOne in tow. This is a two-stage expendable rocket that, after being released at just the right time, fires up its main stage 73,500-lb (33,339-kg) engine for around three minutes.
Following separation from the main stage, the 5,000 lbf (22,241-N) upper stage then carries out multiple burns totaling almost six minutes to carry the customer's payload into orbit. Thereafter, the Cosmic Girl aircraft returns to an airport and preparations begin for its next flight.
Virgin Orbit says launching rockets from an airplane rather than a launchpad on the ground has a few benefits. It means its missions aren't as susceptible to bad weather that can typically cause delays, and it gives it more flexibility in terms of locations, and even provides better payload capacity.
It is now looking to make use of these advantages sooner rather than later, announcing that it has earned a commercial space transportation license from the US Federal Aviation Administration for a reusable launch vehicle and its LauncherOne vehicle.
The company has already been test flying the Cosmic Girl mothership at its base in the Mojave Desert, but is now preparing to do so while sending a rocket along for the ride. That means first fixing launch pylons to the plane that will hold the rocket in place under its wing.
Test flights will first be conducted with just the pylons in place, followed by test flights with a fully integrated LauncherOne rocket. If all of that plays out as expected, it will then drop a rocket and let it free fall down to the ground to gather data along the way. And from there, the company will look to begin orbital test flights.
Virgin Orbit hasn't put a precise timeframe on all of this, but does say that the test campaign will be "the most fun stuff we've ever done" and that "it's going to be an awesome couple of weeks." It also says it feels good about "reaching orbit and getting into commercial service this year."
The video below shows the Cosmic Girl plane in action during a test flight at the Mojave Desert base.
Source: Virgin Orbit
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