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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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Launch Challenge finalists include mystery team

Rocket launches
An artist’s conception shows rockets lifting off from an oceanside launch complex. (DARPA Illustration)

Three teams have qualified to go into the rocket-launching phase of the DARPA Launch Challenge: Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit’s VOX Space subsidiary … and a team to be named later.

In making today’s announcement, DARPA said the third team asked to stay anonymous for a few months more, for competitive reasons. That mystery team will come out of stealth in advance of the fly-off, which has been shifted to take place early 2020.

Like previous DARPA competitions, the Launch Challenge is meant to boost commercial innovation in a technological area of interest to the military — in this case, rapid and flexible launch capabilities.

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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 gets ready to start test launches

Stephen Eisele
Virgin Orbit Vice President Stephen Eisele talks about his company’s air-launch system during the NewSpace conference in Renton, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

RENTON, Wash. — British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit venture is getting ready to put its LauncherOne rocket system through its first flight test in a little more than a week, the company’s vice president for business development said today.

The first flight will be a captive-carry test, Virgin Orbit’s Stephen Eisele said during the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference in Renton. That means an inactive LauncherOne rocket would be attached to a pylon built onto a converted Boeing 747 jet that’s known as Cosmic Girl.

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Spaceflight adds Virgin Orbit to its lineup

Virgin Orbit launch
An artist’s conception shows Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic Girl” 747 jet carrying a LauncherOne rocket in preparation for air launch. (Virgin Orbit Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight has a new product to offer customers who want to get small satellites up and running: Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system.

Virgin Orbit’s system, which involves sending its two-stage LauncherOne rocket into orbit from a converted Boeing 747 jet dubbed Cosmic Girl, isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. But it’s due to become available soon, and when the rockets start flying, they’ll offer Spaceflight’s clients something that’s been hard to get up to now.

Melissa Wuerl, Spaceflight’s director of business development, said her company’s customers have been asking for launch opportunities that can put small satellites into low- to mid-latitude orbital inclinations that stick close to Earth’s equator.

“We started casting about … and there just wasn’t any,” she told GeekWire.

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Virgin Orbit uses high tech for low-cost rockets

Scott Macklin
Virgin Orbit’s Scott Macklin leads a tour of the company’s production facility in Long Beach, Calif. A full-size schematic of the LauncherOne rocket’s upper stage is painted on the floor. (GeekWire Photo / Chelsey Ballarte)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Virgin Orbit aims to blaze a trail on the final frontier, but in order to do that, it has had to push into new frontiers on the factory floor.

Case in point: The Lasertec 4300 3D additive-subtractive hybrid machine that’s turning out rocket parts at Virgin Orbit’s 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility here in Long Beach.

Like a 3-D printer, the room-sized machine builds up a component from the ground up, using laser light to fuse metal powder into each layer. But along each step of the way, the part is fine-tuned by shaving off the excess bits.

“It is literally the first of its kind in operation with a commercial company,” Andrew Duggleby, a manufacturing manager at Virgin Orbit, said as he worked on the combustion chamber for one of Virgin Orbit’s Newton rocket engines.

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Virgin Orbit’s jet gets set to launch rockets

Cosmic Girl
Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, known as Cosmic Girl, comes home to Long Beach, Calif., after going through a series of upgrades and tests. (Virgin Orbit Photo)

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet, christened “Cosmic Girl,” is back at its home base in Long Beach, Calif., for preparations that will lead to its use as a launch platform for small satellites.

The jet returned to Long Beach on July 31 after going through a series of inspections and modifications conducted in collaboration with L3 Platform Integration and VT Aerospace, two of Virgin Orbit’s partners.

In a news release, Virgin Orbit said the Federal Aviation Administration has issued Cosmic Girl an experimental airworthiness certificate, opening the way for flight tests to begin at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

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