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Virgin Orbit sets new date for debut space launch following hitch

Virgin Orbit was supposed to launch a rocket from a Boeing 747 rocket on Sunday but the test was scuppered by a technical issue.

The Virgin Galactic spinoff had been hoping to achieve the first full demonstration of its mid-air launch system that’s designed to deploy small satellites in low-Earth orbit. Preparations had been going well until engineers spotted a problem with one of the system’s sensors. In response, the team decided to postpone the launch “out of an abundance of caution.”

In a tweet posted shortly after the decision to call off the trial run, Virgin Orbit said: “We completed fueling of our LauncherOne rocket yesterday for our Launch Demo. Everything has been proceeding smoothly: Team, aircraft, & rocket are in excellent shape. However, we have one sensor that is acting up. Out of an abundance of caution, we are offloading fuel to address.”

In a follow-up message, the team described the sensor problem as a “minor issue” and said it had a “straightforward” set of procedures in place to address it.

Later in the day, the team said it had fixed the issue and announced a new test window, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. PT on Monday, May 26.

The test will involve flying a Boeing 747 — named Cosmic Girl– from Mojave Air and Space Port over the Pacific Ocean where it’ll release a 70-foot long, two-stage LauncherOne orbital rocket from beneath the aircraft’s left wing. The booster will then ignite in mid-air, sending the rocket to space where it will deploy a dummy payload.

“The instant our Newton Three engine ignites, we will have done something no one has ever done before — lighting an orbital-class, liquid-fueled, horizontally-launched vehicle in flight,” Virgin Orbit said last week.

The California-based company wants to use its system to launch small satellites for private customers. The growing market is also being pursued by the likes of SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Rocket Lab, among others.

Whereas SpaceX uses a conventional ground-based rocket launch for deployment, Virgin Orbit’s technique is notable for its unusual method of using a rocket attached to a jet plane, which it believes is a more efficient system.

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Trevor Mogg
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