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Virgin Orbit's "flying launchpad" completes first captive carry flight


Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl took to the skies over Southern California on November 18, 2018 carrying a 70-ft-long (21-m) rocket for the first time. The specially modified 747-400 "flying launchpad" with the LauncherOne small-satellite booster under its port wing took off from Victorville, California on an 80-minute test flight designed to assess the take-off, landing, and low-speed handling and performance of the integrated aircraft and carbon-fiber two-stage rocket.

According to Virgin Orbit, Sunday's test flight by Sir Richard Branson's small satellite launch company was the first in a series leading up to an actual orbital launch early next year. Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart called it "a picture-perfect flight, and a major step forward in our quest to bring a new capability to small satellite launch."

The modified passenger aircraft and its rocket cargo are scheduled to carry out more tests over the coming months to gather more flight data on how well the mated systems work, as well as the robustness of the liquid-fueled rocket's composite design, avionics, and onboard computers. This will culminate in a dead-drop of the rocket without its engine firing to provide additional flight data during free fall. After its initial launch mission, Virgin Orbit plans to carry out several launches per year.

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