Right now, hundreds of space startups are racing to develop newer, smaller rockets, in order to take advantage of the proliferation of smaller satellites within the aerospace industry. Many of these companies want to get to space the old-fashioned way, by making a rocket that takes off vertically from the ground. But one company has eyed another method for getting to space — by launching underneath the wing of a giant airplane.
This is the strategy of Virgin Orbit, the sibling company to Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic. Virgin Orbit has developed a small rocket called LauncherOne that can put satellites the size of washing machines into orbit. And its launchpad resides at 35,000 feet. Virgin Orbit owns a Boeing 747 airplane, called Cosmic Girl, which carries LauncherOne up into the sky. From there, the rocket will drop from underneath Cosmic Girl’s left wing and then ignite, climbing the rest of the way to orbit.
The job of flying Cosmic Girl belongs to Kelly Latimer, a Virgin pilot who comes with years of experience flying military aircraft and 747s. In our latest Verge Science video, we speak with Latimer about what it’s like to pilot a plane that carries a rocket strapped to its wing. Latimer is responsible for getting Cosmic Girl on a safe course over water, as well as deploying LauncherOne when the time is right. She also must orient the plane at the right angle for launch, as well as veer away when the rocket detaches.
“At that point, the rocket’s on its own,” she tells The Verge. “We pull off to the right… Meanwhile, the rocket counts to five and then lights its motor and goes off to space.”
Virgin Orbit has yet to actually send LauncherOne to space. The company is currently still in the midst of its testing program, which entails both igniting the rocket on test stands and flying Cosmic Girl with the rocket attached. LauncherOne has flown a few times strapped to the 747, but has yet to actually fall from the wing. That’s going to change soon. Eventually, Virgin Orbit will fill LauncherOne with water, to simulate its weight when filled with propellant, and then drop the rocket from Cosmic Girl. It’ll show the Virgin Orbit team whether the rocket falls like they expect.
If that goes well, the company will be closer than ever to actually launching LauncherOne for the first time. “That’s going to be really exciting,” says Latimer. “Not as exciting as the actual rocket [launch], but once we get that test done, that’s the point we say, ‘Our flight test program is finished. We’re now good to go.’”