Billionaire Richard Branson’s satellite launch business is one step closer to a live test flight after sending its launch vehicle plummeting into the California desert this week.
Like its sister spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit hopes to reduce costs by launching its rockets and small satellite payloads from an airborne jet. During this week’s “drop test,” the company’s modified 747, known as Cosmic Girl, ascended to roughly 35,000 feet and successfully released a LaunchOne rocket equipped with water and antifreeze, which simulated the fuel it would carry during the real thing.
Because the test was designed to test only the release of the rocket, Virgin Orbit didn’t care all that much what happened to it afterward: a harrowing descent and crash at Edwards Air Force Base.
The 747 and the LaunchOne rocket went through previous flight and ground tests, respectively, and the company says it’s now ready for a series of final checks before a flight test with a functioning rocket. It’s unclear when that test might occur, but once it does, Virgin Orbit reportedly hopes to start commercial launches within 10 weeks.