Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit just dropped a rocket from an airplane

The commercial space company moves closer to launching satellites from an aircraft.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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The LauncherOne rocket strapped under the Cosmic Girl airplane.

Virgin Orbit

It takes a lot of energy, and money, to launch a rocket from the ground. Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit wants to keep costs down by launching small satellites into orbit via a rocket released from an airplane. 

On Wednesday, the company aced a key drop test using a "fully built, fully loaded" LauncherOne rocket.

The Cosmic Girl aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, took to the skies over the Mojave desert in California and released the carbon-fiber rocket over Edwards Air Force Base. Virgin Orbit live-tweeted the test.

"Flight crew on board Cosmic Girl and our chase plane report good, clean separation. For the first time ever, LauncherOne is flying freely," Virgin Orbit reported, saying moments later the rocket "looked fantastic in the air today."

A video taken from the plane shows the rocket release from under the wing from several different angles.

This is a big moment for Virgin Orbit, which already conducted extensive rocket tests on the ground and then took the rocket up for captive flights without releasing it. The main mission today was checking how well the separation between rocket and aircraft works.

The drop test did not involve igniting the rocket, but it showed the flying launchpad's release system is working as designed. 

Virgin Orbit is a spinoff from Branson's Virgin Galactic, which is focused on ferrying tourists to suborbital space. Both Galactic and Orbit are making strides in their respective missions with successful test flights

Virgin Orbit is now focused on its first orbital rocket and will be looking ahead to the ultimate test: lighting that sucker up and letting it fly.

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