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Although the rocket was “fully loaded,” as the company put it, its engines never fired—nor were they meant to. Instead, the rocket fell freely to Earth so the company could see how it performed during its first few seconds of freefall. This was the last major test for Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system, which will launch rockets from a gutted jumbo jet, known as Cosmic Girl, to boost small satellites into orbit. It’s a complicated maneuver, but it could significantly reduce the costs of getting to space.
The article says they plan their first orbital test flight in the fall. Whether today’s success and that launch can get the company back on track after OneWeb cancelled the bulk of its contract remains to be seen. If they succeed in launching to orbit this year that will make them the only operational competitor to Rocket Lab in the smallsat market, with a system that might be cheaper.