Virgin Orbit gets set to start flight tests of its LauncherOne air-launch system


Stephen EiseleStephen 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.

Eisele said Cosmic Girl would take off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port for the practice flight, during which Virgin Orbit would check the plane’s aerodynamics and test the deployment mechanism. That suggests there’s a chance that the test rocket could be released over a test range.

“The next test after that will be the first orbital flight,” Eisele said. “That will be soon after our captive-carry, after the data has been looked at.”

The follow-up flight will test LauncherOne’s ability to put a payload into orbit. When asked about the payload, Eisele said at first that it’d consist of “12,000 mini-Tesla Matchbox cars” — which was a joking reference to the Tesla Roadster that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket sent to deep space in February.

Once the laughter subsided, Eisele admitted, “That’s not the payload.”

Virgin Orbit’s flight profile calls for using Cosmic Girl as an air-launch platform to put payloads weighing as much as 500 pounds into low Earth orbit. The company’s two-stage LauncherOne rocket would be dropped from the jet at an altitude of roughly 35,000 feet, light up its engine and press onward to space.

The air-launch configuration means that small satellites could be sent into a wide range of orbits, from any base of operations big enough to accommodate a 747. “I won’t name any names, but we’ve had some countries that have asked us about launching from different spots,” Eisele said.

Virgin Orbit says the cost of the launch will be about $12 million, which is relatively cheap by spaceflight standards. This week, Seattle-based Spaceflight announced that it’s partnering with Virgin Orbit for a rideshare launch that’s scheduled for early 2019.

Eisele said his company was already looking at schemes that could address the U.S. government’s interest in rapid-response launch services. One concept calls for “pre-encapsulating” satellites so that they can be quickly loaded aboard a rocket for launch, he said.

“We can turn around an entire launch campaign in less than a day, and honestly in probably a few hours if we had all the pieces lined up and ready to go,” Eisele said.

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