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Virgin Orbit gets a step closer to launch: It flies its plane with a rocket attached

Virgin Orbit gets a step closer to launch: It flies its plane with a rocket attached
Virgin Orbit conducted its first captive-carry test of its modified 747 plane and LauncherOne rocket Sunday. (Virgin Orbit)

Small-satellite launch firm Virgin Orbit flew its modified Boeing 747 plane with a rocket attached beneath a wing for the first time Sunday, marking a step toward its first test launch.

The Long Beach company’s goal is to carry small satellites to orbit by launching them from a rocket, which would be released mid-flight from beneath the wing of the plane.

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The “captive carry” test took off from Victorville and lasted about 80 minutes. Virgin Orbit said the test enabled it to evaluate landing, low-speed handling and performance of the plane when integrated with the 70-foot-long rocket known as LauncherOne. The carbon-fiber rocket is manufactured in Long Beach.

Chief Executive Dan Hart called Sunday’s flight “picture perfect.”

“There’s still important work to do, but I know our team and our customers were all thrilled to see us taking this important step forward,” he said in a statement released Monday.

Virgin Orbit, which is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, plans to conduct the first test launch of its rocket in early 2019.

But it has competition in the small-satellite launch space.

The late Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch also plans to air-launch satellites in a similar fashion and has conducted several tests of how its massive plane — which has two fuselages and a 385-foot wingspan — performs when taxiing on the ground. And Huntington Beach-based Rocket Lab recently performed its first commercial launch of customer satellites from its New Zealand launch pad.

Virgin Orbit said it plans to conduct several more flights of the 747 plane, some with a rocket attached and some without, to gather more data on the system. It also plans to conduct a drop test — in which the LauncherOne rocket is dropped, but does not ignite and blast off — before its first test launch.

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