Unlike traditional rocket systems, which take off vertically from a launch pad, Virgin Orbit proposes to launch rockets horizontally. Eastern, carrying a full-sized version of the LauncherOne rocket, although filled with water rather that propellants.
Sir Richard Branson's company, Virgin Orbit, conducted a successful test drop of an unpowered LauncherOne rocket on Wednesday, July 10, over California's Mojave Desert near the Mojave Air & Space Port. The company's "air launch" system involves a modified Boeing 747 that carries the rocket tens of thousands of feet into the air, where it is then released as part of an overall system aiming to take satellites into space. A half-hour later, the plane released the rocket at an altitude of 10,700 meters above a test range at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
The test was created to test the dynamics of the release of the rocket, which on an actual mission would be allowed to fall for several seconds before igniting its first-stage engine.
The company said the test was a success.
"The whole flight went incredibly well".
Branson's Virgin Orbit LauncherOne may be a more practical approach to short lead-time, low cost orbital launches.
"Everything matched what we'd seen in the simulators well - in fact, the release dynamics and the aircraft handling qualities were both better than we expected".
Competition is fierce among Virgin Orbit, Firefly and U.S. The company then performed several captive carry flights, with a LauncherOne attached to that adapter but not released. Following the dramatic first flight of late billionaire Paul Allen's Stratolaunch aircraft on April 19, 2019, the Reuters News agency ran a story on May 31 saying the Stratolaunch flight program would be shut down until a buyer for the ambitious project came forward.
Hart said acquisitions or mergers could play a role in Virgin Orbit's growth strategy and did not rule out buying assets of Stratolaunch.
Virgin Orbit's subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the same mid-air launch system to the USA military, with a first mission slated for early next year. The rocket that will fly that mission has already undergone extensive testing, company representatives said.
That launch location will join other sites including the United States, Guam and United Kingdom, which Virgin Orbit says will provide satellite makers and governments more flexibility.
"I've told them to take a few hours now to celebrate - our first launch campaign begins in the morning".