British billionaire Richard Branson’s galactic aspirations have taken a step forward after his rocket launch company successfully completed a test flight of a Boeing 747 designed to launch satellites into orbit.
Virgin Orbit’s plane, Cosmic Girl, took to the Californian skies for an 80 minutes on November 18 with a 70-foot-long rocket, called Launcher One, strapped under its wing, the company wrote in a statement.
It’s a milestone for the company that plans to provide an affordable launch service for small satellites by using rockets launched in mid-air from commercial aircraft.
It’ll also lift confidence in Branson’s wider ambitions, which include taking tourists to the edge of space.
“It marks the first time a 747 has carried a rocket, let alone a space rocket,” Branson wrote in a blog post, adding that the test flight was “a big step forward for the company as we look forward to reaching orbit in early 2019.”
Virgin Orbit plans to conduct several more flights, which will conclude with a drop test “during which a rocket will be released from Cosmic Girl — without igniting — generating critical data about Cosmic Girl’s and the rocket’s performance as it freefalls through the atmosphere,” the company wrote in a statement.
The small satellite launch market is a growing one. As satellite technologies become cheaper and private companies on Earth have found new, interesting uses for them, many are looking for cheap ways to get their devices into orbit.
Virgin Orbit is among several other commercial space startups, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, looking to help meet this new demand.
Some are hoping to carry tourists beyond our atmosphere, with Branson among those striving to make it commercially viable via his Virgin Galactic company.
Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic company completed a rocket-powered test flight at 2.47 times the speed of sound in July.
Branson has been making claims of imminent launch dates since 2013, but setbacks including a fatal accident in 2014 have stretched the time line.