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Virgin Orbit drop tested a rocket from 747 aircraft

It was part of a pre-scheduled test conducted by Virgin Orbit, the space startup supported by British entrepreneur Richard Branson. The company wants to shoot satellites in orbit using rockets starting in the air during the aircraft's aircraft. Wednesday's play, where a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket was intentionally left to fall back to the ground for a "drop test", was the last step toward achieving that goal.

LauncherOne departed from a Mojave lane located under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl. When the aircraft reached about 35,000 feet, the typical cross-height of commercial aircraft, the rocket was released. It then forged into the ground in a test area at Edward's Air Force Base.

During operational missions, the LauncherOne rocket would burn its engine shortly after detaching from Cosmic Girl's wing and continuing to fly in orbit to extinguish satellites for Virgin Orbit's customers. But for the drop test, a dummy rocket was used to simulate the entire commercial air experience ̵

1; just outside the part where the rocket zooms out in orbit.

Virgin Orbit said in a blog post that it would be "monitoring and exercise of a million things" during the drop test – but it was primarily intended to "secure the rocket and the plane cleanly" and allow engineers to "observe how rocket behaves "under free fall. It was the last scheduled test flight before Virgin Galactic will attempt an orbital mission.

CEO Dan Hart told CNN Business on Wednesday after the flight that the first data reported on the test "was absolutely perfect."

"We're really locked in, from this afternoon to focus on our first orbital rocket and get the plane and equipment ready," Hart said.

Smallsats big business

The company says its LauncherOne rocket will be able to put 500 kg or 1,100 pounds in orbit – enough lift capacity for a series of small satellites or [19659002] smallsats .

As satellite technology has become cheaper, the demand for cheaper and more frequent rocket launches has swelled. Numerous startups try to answer this demand by building cheap, lightweight rockets that will be dedicated to launching miniature satellites.

Virgin Orbit has begun to compete with similar US startup Rocket Lab, which is the only dedicated smallsat launch company currently in operation.
Virgin Orbit already has customers lined up.

The company stands apart from its rivals by choosing an air-launched rocket. The vast majority of launch vehicles retract vertically from a ground-based cushion.

Flying a rocket to a high altitude before the burning of the engine can improve vehicle efficiency. It doesn't have to waste fuel that cuts through the thickest parts of the atmosphere.

But there are also disadvantages. As it lights up in the middle of the air, engineers cannot make last-minute adjustments to the rocket if something goes wrong. And there is the added risk of enclosing the large rocket, full of flammable propellants, on a human pilot plane. (Kelly Latimer, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the US Air Force, Cosmic Girl Pilots.)

Virgin Orbit was spun off from Branson's second spacecraft, Virgin Galactic, in 2017. Galactic focuses on human spaceflight and plans to start flying tourists on short excursions to the upper atmosphere in the second half of next year.
Galactic announced a merger agreement Tuesday that will bring the company to the stock market and become the first space tourism venture to do so.

Virgin Orbit was not part of this deal. But Hart, CEO, told CNN Business that the company is looking for a cash inflow. He said his team has been "involved in some investor discussions as we started earlier this year."

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