A space start-up company backed by Richard Branson has successfully tested its air-launch satellite booster by releasing a rocket from a modified Boeing 747 aircraft mid-flight.
Virgin Orbit completed the test flight in California on Wednesday when it dropped the 20-metre rocket from the wing of Cosmic Girl, the company's modified Boeing 747 aircraft.
The aircraft reached a cruising altitude of more than 10,000 metres over the Mojave Desert before the fully-built and fully loaded rocket was released.
Emerging from the wing of the plane, the LauncherOne rocket had no power, but fell as planned to the crash site below.
The test was deemed successful with its purpose being to demonstrate how the rocket would detached from the wing of the plane before the orbital launch planned for later this year.
The test flight was piloted by Virgin Orbit’s Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer and Todd Ericsson, both of whom also fly for Virgin Orbit’s sister company Virgin Galactic.
“The whole flight went incredibly well. The release was extremely smooth, and the rocket fell away nicely. There was a small roll with the aircraft, just as we expected," said Latimer in a statement.
Californian resident's are no strangers to the sight of Cosmic Girl flying overhead, but this is the first time that Virgin Orbit has used the aircraft to release a fully developed LauncherOne mid-flight.
Virgin Orbit's CEO Dan Hart said it was a major breakthrough. He commented “Today’s test was a monumental step forward for us. It’s the capstone to a thorough development programme not just for a rocket, but for our carrier aircraft, our ground support equipment, and all of our flight procedures."
The company is the sister to Virgin Galactic, the entity that has developed a space tourism rocket plane and is also owned by Richard Branson.
Virgin Orbit will use Cosmic Girl to fly around the world to launch small satellites. The transportable equipment means the company can launch these from the most optimal locations. As well as its home base in California, the company is set to have spaceports around the world with locations in Florida, the United Kingdom and Italy expressing an interest in working with Virgin Orbit.