Virgin Orbit, a small satellite launch company, the brother of Richard Branson’s space travel company, Virgin, plans to test-fire its launch vehicle for the first time today. For the past six years, the company has been developing and testing its launch vehicle, but now it is ready to put the rocket into orbit.
Virgin Orbit’s main rocket, called the LauncherOne, is capable of launching small and medium-sized payloads ( roughly the size of a washing machine) into space. Instead of launching vertically from the ground like most rockets on the ground, the LauncherOne took off from under the wing of the Boeing 747. The 747, nicknamed “Cosmic Girl,” was designed to carry the LauncherOne at an altitude of 35,000 feet, and then the LauncherOne left the plane, its main engine ignited, pushing the LauncherOne into orbit.
Virgin Orbit hasn’t actually put the LauncherOne into orbit yet, but it’s already testing all its hardware extensively. Virgin Orbit engineers have conducted several ignition tests on the LauncherOne engine, known as the Newton Three, at the Mojave Aviation and Spaceport test facilities.
Now, LauncherOne is loaded with a fake payload, which the company uses as a satellite for the actual customer. This means that the team has been careful to handle it, even to clean it, to treat it as if it were something real. To put the test payload into orbit, LauncherOne and Boeing 747 will take off today from the Mojave Space Port and fly over the Pacific Ocean, positioning it above the rocket’s landing point. The Boeing 747 will release the rocket, and in a few seconds the engine should ignite and begin the LauncherOne’s space journey.
If all goes well, the company’s goal is to get into commercial services quickly. Its first customer is NASA.