Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic subsidiary has re-purposed a 747-400 passenger aircraft, previously operated by Virgin Atlantic, and given it a chance to play a starring role in the special products cargo arena. Today it serves as a dedicated vehicle for LauncherOne, a small satellite launching operation. Check out this Virgin Galactic video below to see an animation artist’s view of a typical launch sequence.
The service provides an affordable “ride” to orbit for small satellites that are carried in the LauncherOne rocket mounted to the aircraft under the left wing, adjacent to the position that’s been used by other 747s to ferry a fifth engine. The launch system is capable of launching more than 400 kilograms (about 882 pounds) of payload to orbit.
Branson and Virgin Galactic engineers made the announcement while providing an update on LauncherOne development progress. The company said initial inspections and tests of the aircraft, nicknamed “Cosmic Girl,” have been completed, and before the wing modification (to carry the satellite) begins, a regularly scheduled maintenance check will be done by MRO VT San Antonio.
Cosmic Girl, has already lived up to her name, Branson said. The 747 program has supported NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise test flight program and served in the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program, among other space programs.
The LauncherOne team said the properties of the 747 are ideal for the orbital launch platform. For example, the aircraft has a large rocket carrying capacity, operational flexibility, a long range, the ability to operate in a variety of weather conditions and years of experience. Additionally, the LauncherOne team is familiar with the maintenance and spare parts supply chain of the aircraft.
This year, the LauncherOne team moved into a 150,000-square-foot facility for design and manufacturing, and expanded its staff to 150. The team also completed several long-duration tests of its liquid-fuelled rocket engines and won new customers, including one in the field of space and a governmental client. LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, U.S.