Virgin Orbit, the sister company of spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, nailed its first-ever drop test on Wednesday using a dummy LauncherOne rocket deployed from a Boeing 747 carrier named Cosmic Girl, Space.com reported.
The test didn’t involve an actual rocket launch—the Boeing 747 carrier just dropped its 70-foot (21-meter) rocket some 35,000 feet (about 10,670 meters) to a receiving site at Edward’s Air Force Base in the California portion of the Mojave Desert. In a blog post, Virgin Orbit described the intent of the test as “really all about those few seconds just after release, as we ensure the rocket and aircraft separate cleanly and observe how the rocket freefalls through the air.”
According to Space.com, Virgin Orbit has not set a hard date for when it will progress to actually send LauncherOne test rockets into orbit, other than that the rocket needs to undergo significant testing beforehand. In an interview with CNBC, CEO Dan Hart said its first such test “hopefully will be before the end of the summer.”
“Later this month, our integration team will wrap up that testing, mate the stages together and then hand the rocket off to our launch operations team,” the company wrote in the blog post. “After that, our LaunchOps crew will run through the checks and rehearsals any serious rocket company does in the lead-up to a flight.”
While Virgin Galactic is all about spaceflight—and recently announced plans to be the first company in the industry to go public amid profitability projects that put it at a positive balance by 2021—Virgin Orbit is all about small satellite launches. As Space.com noted, LauncherOne can carry satellites up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) and is designed to be much more flexible than rockets that launch from the ground, which Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson said could allow smallsat launches with as little as a day’s notice.
“This drop test is the final major demonstration in a development program that’s been going on for four and a half years,” Hart told CNBC. “It’s a huge deal... separating developmental work from the beginning of operations for us and getting to orbit.”
According to CNBC, Hart said that the cost of a launch using LauncherOne will be $10-15 million. That’s much cheaper than air launch rivals like Northrop Grumman, whose Pegasus system uses a converted Lockheed Martin L-1011 and costs $40 million. Ars Technica reported last year that Pegasus “has existed since 1990 but now flies less than once” annually due to its ballooning cost.
Hart also told CNBC that Virgin Orbit has more than a dozen launches line up, the vast majority of them for private companies. One launch will carry a NASA payload and another will be conducted on behalf of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, but Hart said that “In small satellites and small launch the commercial world is actually leading.” While LauncherOne is a conventional expendable system as opposed to the partially reusable systems being pioneered by rival SpaceX, Hart added in his interview that Virgin Orbit hopes to eventually be capable of launching “every four to six hours” and could potentially scale up rocket production to 20 annually, as opposed to the six it currently has sitting in factories.