Virgin Orbit Conducts Cryogenic Flight Test with Fueled LauncherOne Booster

Cosmic Girl performs a pitch up maneuver during a flight test on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Orbit completed a cryogenic captive carry flight test with a fueled LauncherOne rocket aboard for the first time, clearing the last hurdle before Richard Branson’s company can conduct the maiden flight of the air-launched booster.

Closeup of LauncherOne. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747, known as Cosmic Girl, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 11:43 a.m. PDT. The aircraft had a LauncherOne filled with RP-1 and liquid nitrogen under its wing.

During the 1 hour 57 minute flight, the jumbo jet flew over the Pacific Ocean where it practiced the maneuvers needed to air launch the booster.

“We’ve successfully completed our pull-up maneuver and simulated drop,” Virgin Orbit tweeted. “Everything has looked good thus far on this capstone launch rehearsal. Cosmic Girl heading back to base.”

Cosmic Girl with a fueled LauncherOne under its wing during a flight test on April 12 2020. (Virgin Orbit)

LauncherOne is a two-stage booster fueled with RP-1 and liquid oxygen (LOX). In previous flight tests, the booster’s tanks were filled with water, which is much warmer than LOX.

Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne under its wing. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

For this cryogenic test, Virgin Orbit substituted liquid nitrogen for the LOX as a safety precaution.

“So, for this end-to-end rehearsal, we’ll have liquid nitrogen — which is very similar in temperature to liquid oxygen, but which would pose less of a risk in case anything were to go wrong despite all of our planning — in our LOX tanks for both stages,” Virgin Orbit wrote in a mission update.

Cosmic Girl on approach to the Mojave Air and Space Port on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

VIrgin Orbit engineers will now review data from the flight before preparing for the maiden launch of the booster. The company has not announced a date for the flight.

Cosmic Girl about the land at the Mojave Air and Space Port on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

LauncherOne is capable of placing payloads weighing 500 kg (1,102 lb) into low Earth orbit and 300 kg (661 lb) into sun synchronous orbit.