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Virgin Orbit’s rocket makes (short) first flight

Virgin Orbit launch of LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket fires its booster engine after its release from the Cosmic Girl carrier airplane. (Virgin Orbit Photo)

A new breed of launch vehicle had a shaky first outing today when Virgin Orbit released its LauncherOne rocket from a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet flying over the Pacific Ocean for its first blastoff.

“We’ve confirmed a clean release from the aircraft,” Virgin Orbit reported in a tweet. “However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight.”

In a follow-up Twitter thread, Virgin Orbit said the rocket maintained its stability after release and fired up its first-stage engine. “An anomaly then occurred early in first-stage flight,” the company said.

The carrier airplane, known as Cosmic Girl, and its crew landed safely back at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the test. “We’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today,” Virgin Orbit said.

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Virgin Orbit jet aces first flight with rocket attached

Cosmic Girl with Launcher One
Virgin Orbit’s 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket is hooked beneath the left wing of the modified 747 jet known as Cosmic Girl during the first captive-carry flight. (Virgin Orbit Photo)

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, has made its first test flight with a LauncherOne rocket tucked under its wing.

The 80-minute captive-carry flight from California’s Victorville Airport and back came on Nov. 18 after months of step-by-step preparations, and represents a major step forward in Virgin Orbit’s plan to start sending satellites to orbit next year.

In a news release, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the outing was “a picture-perfect flight.”

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Virgin Orbit gives its flying launch pad a trial run

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl
Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrier airplane taxis down a runway at Victorville Airport in California with a LauncherOne rocket slung under one of its wings. (Virgin Orbit via Twitter)

British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit space venture notched another milestone over the Veterans Day weekend: the first high-speed taxi test of its modified Boeing 747 mothership with a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath its wing.

In a tweet posted today, Virgin Orbit said the Nov. 11 ground test revved up the plane, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, to a speed beyond 110 knots (125 mph) on a runway in Victorville, Calif. That’s fast enough to simulate an aborted takeoff.

“We also used the day as an opportunity to load real flight software onto LauncherOne for the first time,” the company said.

Branson signaled his approval in a follow-up tweet. “Congratulations to all the team on more exciting progress,” he wrote.

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Virgin Orbit fits rocket beneath mothership’s wing

Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket undergoes fit checks underneath a 747 jet that’s been modified to serve as a carrier airplane. (Virgin Orbit Photo via Twitter)

What do you get when you cross a Boeing 747 with a rocket launcher? You get something like what you see in the pictures that Virgin Orbit sent out today, showing a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath the wing of a modified 747 that’s been christened “Cosmic Girl.”

Such a system is designed to serve as Virgin Orbit’s air-launch platform for putting payloads weighing up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) in orbit. Future customers include OneWeb, which is working on a constellation of satellites for global internet access; and Seattle-based Spaceflight, which handles the logistics for small-satellite launches.

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Virgin Galactic signs deal for spaceflights in Italy

SpaceShiipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, is hooked onto its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic and a pair of Italian companies today signed a framework agreement aimed at bringing Virgin Galactic’s launch system to a future spaceport in the heel of Italy’s “boot.”

The suborbital space launch system would be based at Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, which Italian public-private partners aim to turn into a spaceport.

Although the companies didn’t announce a time frame for the start of operations, one of the executives involved said in May that the spaceport “could be active as early as 2020.”

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Virgin Orbit satellite spin-off makes its debut

LauncherOne deployment
An artist’s conception shows Virgin Orbit’s carrier airplane, Cosmic Girl, deploying a LauncherOne rocket for a high-altitude orbital launch. (Virgin Galactic Illustration)spac

Virgin Galactic says it’s spinning off its satellite launch operation, including the LauncherOne rocket development program, as a new commercial space company called Virgin Orbit.

The newly created company’s first president, Dan Hart, comes to the job from the Boeing Co., where he most recently served as vice president of government satellite systems.

“I’m thrilled that our small-satellite launch service has now progressed to the point it merits the formation of its own company, Virgin Orbit, and a new president in Dan with decades of deep experience and success in a broad variety of space programs,” Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said today in a news release.

Virgin Group now has three companies in its commercial space portfolio, which is known as Galactic Ventures.

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Virgin Galactic will use jet as rocket mothership

Image: Virgin Galactic jet
An artist’s conception shows a 747 jet carrying a LauncherOne rocket. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic showed off its latest mothership today: a Boeing 747-400 jet that it acquired from its corporate cousins at Virgin Atlantic to serve as the platform for its LauncherOne rocket.

LauncherOne is designed to be launched from a high-flying carrier airplane and send small-scale satellites into orbit. It will use a liquid-fueled engine called Newton, which is still under development. The launch system is expected to be in operation by 2018, and it’s already been tapped by OneWeb to help put a global Internet constellation into orbit.

It was previously thought that LauncherOne would use Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. That’s the mothership being used for SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered passenger space plane. But Virgin Galactic said the 747 was more suited for LauncherOne’s upgraded payload capacity and flight rate.

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