The US company Virgin Orbit has conducted end-to-end dress rehearsal of a Cosmic Girl launch vehicle with a LauncherOne rocket with fuel RP-1 and liquid nitrogen. Despite the pandemic, Virgin Orbit plans to stick to the schedule to begin shipping small satellites into orbit as early as 2021.
The company’s modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft, registered under registration number N744VG and named Cosmic Girl, took off from an airfield in the Mojave Desert and began flying over the Pacific Ocean south of Santa Barbara on Sunday, with a LauncherOne rocket attached to its left wing. Two hours after the start, the plane landed with the rocket at the airfield. The company notes that such tests will be the last step before the first launch of the rocket.
The company has conducted similar tests in the past, but this time the rocket was not a model, but a real one, with tanks filled with fuel RP-1 and liquid nitrogen. During the flight, the launch maneuver was tested, in which the Boeing 747 quickly raises its nose and turns to the right after releasing the rocket to move away from it.
As part of the test, the specialists worked out the refueling of the chilled fuel. For safety, instead of liquid oxygen, which will be used as an oxidizing agent during full-fledged launches, they filled the oxidizing tank with fuel RP-1 and liquid nitrogen, which has a close boiling point: −196°C for nitrogen and −183°C for oxygen.
Another difference from the launch is that the Cosmic Girl did not drop a missile. However, it simulated a drop and immediately after that conducted a maneuver of sideways departure from the LauncherOne rocket. In addition, experts checked the telemetry of the rocket.
Now the company plans to study the data obtained during these tests, as well as to conduct several more tests before a full flight. The company also said that this is “the last big step before the launch demonstration”, which will be the first attempt to launch the orbital rocket. When the first launch of the rocket takes place, it is not clear; it was previously reported that it could take place a couple of weeks after the simulation flight.