Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl conducts successful drop test with LauncherOne

Virgin Orbit achieved another major milestone in its test program for LauncherOne when an inert rocket was drop tested over a test range at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The flight saw the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft follow up on its series of captive carry flights with Wednesday’s release of its LauncherOne rocket.

The test rocket was a fully built, fully loaded – although inert – LauncherOne rocket, allowing for it to be safely dropped over the Edwards test range.

The test flight began with a takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port at Mojave, CA, at 8:43 A.M. Pacific; the drop itself occurred at 9:13 A.M. Pacific from an altitude of 35,000 feet.

The primary purpose of the test was to monitor the few critical seconds just after release, to ensure the rocket and aircraft separate cleanly and to observe how the rocket freefalls through the air.

This was the next milestone to be conducted after numerous Captive Carry flights that allowed the data to be gathered on how Cosmic Girl – a converted 747 – performs with a 70 foot long rocket under one of her wings.

“On this flight, we will release a fully built, fully loaded LauncherOne rocket from Cosmic Girl for the first time. We’ll be monitoring and rehearsing a million things, but this test is really all about those few seconds just after release, as we ensure the rocket and aircraft separate cleanly and observe how the rocket freefalls through the air,” noted Virgin Orbit ahead of the test.

“This upcoming drop test is a huge deal for our team. It represents the last major step of a development program we began in 2015, focused not just on designing a rocket but proving it out alongside the modified 747 that serves as our flying launchpad — not to mention simultaneously building out our manufacturing facility.

“It’s impossible to quantify how much effort and joy and frustration and brainpower we’ve poured into this project, so you can imagine the sense of anticipation we feel as we look toward one of our significant milestones to date.”

The test went to plan and was deemed successful.

Cosmic Girl was piloted by Virgin Orbit’s Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col. USAF, Ret.) and Todd Ericson (Col. USAF, Ret.), both of whom also fly for Virgin Orbit’s sister company, Virgin Galactic. Also on board were Zack Rubin, Flight Test Director; Bryce Schaefer, Launch Engineer; Jason Panzarino, Launch Engineer; and Kevin Sagis, Chief Engineer.

“The whole flight went incredibly well. The release was extremely smooth, and the rocket fell away nicely. There was a small roll with the aircraft, just as we expected,” noted Lt. Col. Latimer.

“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. This was the best kind of test flight sortie from a test pilot’s perspective — an uneventful one.”

This successful test paves the way for Virgin Orbit to make its final progression to launch. The company noted it has advanced on three parallel streams of work.

“First, the team needed to test LauncherOne on the ground, proving that its engines, tanks, pumps, software and all other elements can function together as integrated stages. That effort culminated in full thrust, integrated hotfires of both LauncherOne’s main and upper stages. At the same time, Virgin Orbit needed to complete its flight test program — which has now come to a close with today’s drop test.

“Finally, the company also needed to build, assemble and test its first orbital test flight rocket.”

LauncherOne during production – via Virgin Orbit

The company added, that – later this month – Virgin Orbit will finalize that rocket’s assembly before handing it off to the company’s operations team for a rigorous series of checks and rehearsals leading up to its first launches to space later this year.

For today, however, the company can celebrate the latest milestone, before heading into the next phase of along the path towards its first launch.

“Today’s test was a monumental step forward for us. It’s the capstone to a thorough development program not just for a rocket, but for our carrier aircraft, our ground support equipment, and all of our flight procedures. I’m extremely proud of the team for getting us to this point and for their spectacular performance today.

“I’ve told them to take a few hours now to celebrate — our first launch campaign begins in the morning.”

About the author