Virgin Orbit, the SpaceX competitor of Sir Richard Branson, recently completed a key test involving the use of its “Cosmic Girl” Boeing 747-400 jet-turned-satellite launcher.
The company has been designing, building and testing LauncherOne and Cosmic Girl's systems near Long Beach, Calif., and at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The 70-foot-long, 28-ton LauncherOne is an orbital-class rocket that will take the retrofitted 747 as high above Earth as possible. The rocket will then be released from the plane, and the mission’s payload will be delivered into orbit.
Virgin sees these the ability to launch satellites from the air, via a reusable 747 from Branson’s Virgin Atlantic fleet, as easier, less expensive, and more resilient to weather conditions than ground-based launches.
Orbitak ATK, NASA and the U.S. military have used similar air-based approaches. SpaceX currently uses their Falcon 9 rocket for ground launches, which can cost up to $62 million per mission.
Although the ground-based approach allows SpaceX to carry larger payloads, Branson is hoping to capitalize on a growing demand for the launch of smaller, less expensive satellites that could be put into orbit more frequently.
The LauncherOne rocket is designed to handle objects ranging in size from a toaster to a refrigerator, with applications ranging from internet connectivity to meteorology.
This approach also allows companies to avoid ride-sharing, where larger craft carry payloads for multiple customers. While this approach cuts costs, it also adds to logistical challenges and raises the potential for mistakes.
This recent test comes two years after the system’s debut. The next step is simulating the release of the rocket to ensure it properly separates from the Cosmic Girl 747.