Richard Branson-backed room start Virgin Orbit has taken a central step towards launching satellites to commercial customers. The company had a successful drop test of its LauncherOne rocket, where the decisive piece of launching system was released in a free fall from its Boeing 747-based launch aircraft (called "Cosmic Girl").
LauncherOne was released from a height of 35,000 feet, which is a typical cruising height for commercial aircraft, which is where it would be during a real launch. Virgin Orbit's model flies its rocket to this height before engaging the engine, much more energy and cost-effective versus launching the rocket from the ground (which is what SpaceX does, for example).
During this test, the LauncherOne rocket did not start its engine (and in fact it is a full-fledged dummy rocket rather than a real one) when it is separated from the wing of the modified 747, which is what it would do if this was an actual launch. Instead, it fell 35,000 feet to the ground, where it hit a planned drop zone at Edward's Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.854242,1854237,1854238,1854240,1854241"]
All this was planning as the main focus of this drop test was to study the separation of the rocket from the launch plane's wing and collect a series of sensor readings on how the rocket behaves when it falls freely through the air.
Virgin Orbit is part of the Virgin's duo of space business, which also includes Virgin Galactic (who announced it intended to become a listed company earlier this week). The specific focus of the revolution is to offer an affordable opportunity for smallsat launches, a market where it will compete with Rocket Lab, which uses a more traditional ground-based rocket launch model.
Next up to Virgin Orbit is to build and assemble its first actual orbital test rocket, which it plans to launch in space later this year.