Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launch system completed first captive carry flight on November 18, 2018
Virgin Orbit, a subsidiary of the Virgin Group, is focused on offering launch services for small satellites. The company’s Cosmic Girl is a Boeing 747-400 aircraft with a pylon added to its left wing. The aircraft, with a LauncherOne rocket attached to the pylon, took off from the Southern California Logistics Airport in California on November 18, 2018. Cosmic Girl landed back at the airport around 90 minutes later after flying above the desert region of Southern California. The flight tracking data did not suggest whether the plane was ferrying a LauncherOne rocket. However, a company spokesperson confirmed that it was a captive carry flight.
The company was focused on performing the captive carry test in recent weeks. In October 2018, the company announced that a LauncherOne was attached to the plane for the first time. The company also previously posted videos of high-speed taxi tests that were performed in Victorville CA, where both the plane and rocket covered the runway at speeds of around 200 kilometers per hour, thereby simulating an aborted takeoff. According to the company statement, the rocket remains attached to the plane during a captive carry flight. Virgin Orbit is focused on performing several such captive carry flights to gather valuable data about key indexes such as aerodynamic performance and structural loading.
The captive carry test program is followed by a drop test in which the rocket will be released in flight from the plane without igniting its engine and the rocket will fall to the desert floor. The drop test is expected to be the final step before the first orbital flight of LauncherOne. In October 2018, the company stated that it completed manufacturing of LauncherOne with two fully integrated rocket stages undergoing static-fire tests in Mojave. However, it has not announced a date for the orbital flight. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said he expected the first orbital launch to take place in December or January, while speaking in an interview with CNBC on October 9, 2018.