LOS ANGELES -- Virgin Orbit successfully dropped one of its rockets -- without fuel inside -- from beneath the wing of its 747 plane Wednesday in a test that mimicked what it would be like for the company to launch small satellites into orbit.
Chief Executive Dan Hart said the "drop test" seemed to have gone exactly as planned, based on video, pilot reports and preliminary data reviews. Long Beach-based Virgin Orbit is hoping to do its first test launch by the end of September, assuming the data collected from Wednesday's flight continue to look good and a few more tests go well, he said.
"This was really the capstone of the flight test program," Hart said of Wednesday's test. "We've been trying gradually more and more complex missions. Today, everything just operated like clockwork."
Unlike traditional rocket systems, which take off vertically from a launch pad, Virgin Orbit proposes to launch rockets horizontally. The company's modified 747 plane -- which has a lower deck completely stripped of passenger seats and overhead compartments but retains airline crew bunks in the cabin and cockpit -- can take off from a typical runway with a rocket tucked under its wing. Then the plane climbs to 35,000 feet, drops the rocket and veers away. During a real launch, according to company plans, the rocket and its payload will fall for four or five seconds, then ignite and hurtle toward space.
Virgin Orbit's 747 plane took off from Mojave Air and Space Port on Wednesday morning and then released the rocket -- which was filled with water and antifreeze to simulate the mass and center of gravity of a fueled rocket -- over Edwards Air Force Base, where it plummeted to the ground.
"Picture the largest water balloon you've ever thrown," Hart said.
"If an object full of water (is) dropping at 35,000 feet over Edwards Air Force Base," he said, when it hits the ground "the pieces are smaller than when they started."
Before its first launch, the company will need to finish testing on the rocket. Virgin Orbit, which is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, will also practice going through the rocket-fuel loading procedures and how to prepare everything for launch day.
But on Wednesday, at least, Hart planned on "a couple of hours of jubilation."
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