Virgin Orbit

Virgin just strapped a rocket onto a modified 747 and the test went perfectly

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Nov 20, 2018, 12:12 PM EST

Just add a rocket and the average plane becomes infinitely cooler. Virgin Orbit just launched its modified 747 Cosmic Girl, equipped with a 70-foot rocket under one wing, and the flight was flawless from takeoff to touchdown.

To say this was a success for the company’s LauncherOne system (which merges rockets with the latest tech) is an understatement. Virgin now has proof that its two-stage carbon-fiber rocket was meant to be Cosmic Girl’s sidekick.

“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer. “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”

Virgin Orbit’s flight crew 80-minute flight test involved takeoff, landing, low-speed handling and overall performance assessments by the flight crew. Cosmic Girl’s success means that Virgin Orbit can venture into more advanced phases of what will be an extensive flight program. She will take to the air several more times, sometimes with her LauncherOne rocket and sometimes without.

Cosmic Girl should keep proving that a modified plane with a rocket attached will hold up. Upcoming flights will also continue to test the lightweight avionics and computers on board the rocket, which demonstrate Virgin Orbit’s high-level technology. The next phase will test how well the rocket performs after being released into the atmosphere without igniting and allowed to freefall through the sky.

This project, which will ultimately become Virgin’s satellite launch provider, has shot upward almost as fast as its rocket plane. The rocket and plane joined forces barely a month ago, and it was only a week ago that it underwent high-speed taxi tests. At this rate, Virgin Orbit expects Cosmic Girl to actually go cosmic and burst into space early next year.

It was “a picture-perfect flight, and a major step forward in our quest to bring a new capability to small satellite launch,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart.

So what if this plane is only going to launch satellites into space. Cosmic Girl was once a passenger aircraft that is now Virgin’s “flying launch pad”, so while there are no immediate plans for leisure flights around the planet, you never know.

(via Virgin Orbit)