Virgin Galactic introduced the newest addition to its fleet of vehicles this week as part of a technical update on its LauncherOne small satellite launch service. The 747- 400 commercial jet aircraft, previously operated by Virgin Atlantic under the nickname ‘Cosmic Girl,’ will provide a dedicated launch platform for the LauncherOne orbital vehicle. Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic engineers announced the acquisition of the aircraft while providing an update on LauncherOne development progress.
“Air launch enables us to provide rapid, responsive service to our satellite customers on a schedule set by their business and operational needs, rather than the constraints of national launch ranges,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO. “Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices.”
In September, Virgin Galactic announced that in response to customer demand, it had doubled LauncherOne’s performance to 200kg into the standard Sun-Synchronous Orbit for a price below US$10 million, with the option to purchase further increases in performance to the same orbit and for launches that reach other altitudes or inclinations. The launch system is capable of launching over 400kg of payload to other orbits.
Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft will remain the mothership for SpaceShipTwo, enabling spaceship customers to enjoy a dedicated platform for suborbital spaceflight services out of Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The 747 is one of the most accomplished and reliable aircraft ever built. It has an established track record of supporting a variety of special missions, including the Space Shuttle Enterprise test flight program, NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program, the Pratt and Whitney flying testbed, and flight test of the X-45 ‘Phantom Ray.’ The LauncherOne team described additional qualities that make the 747 ideal for the orbital launch platform mission: the aircraft’s large and robust rocket carrying capacity, operational flexibility, long range, ability to operate in many kinds of weather, as well as years of existing 747-400 experience, maintenance, and spare parts supply chains. The carrier aircraft can also be deployed from any runway capable of 747 operations.
Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson: “The Boeing 747 has a very special place in my heart: we began service on my first airline, Virgin Atlantic, with just one leased 747. I never imagined that today one of our 747s would get a second chance and help open access to space. I’m absolutely thrilled that Cosmic Girl can stay in the Virgin family — and truly live up to her name!”
The LauncherOne rocket will be mounted to the carrier aircraft under the left wing, adjacent to the position that has been used by other 747s to ferry a fifth engine. Initial inspections and tests of Cosmic Girl have already been completed and, prior to the start of the wing modification, a regularly scheduled maintenance check will be conducted by VT San Antonio Aerospace. A maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) organization, VT San Antonio Aerospace has over the years re-delivered more than 3,000 aircraft.
Virgin Galactic President Steve Isakowitz said, “2015 has been a year of incredible progress. Our LauncherOne team moved into a 150,000 square foot facility for design and manufacturing, grew to more than 150 dedicated staff, completed multiple long-duration hot fires of our liquid rocket engines, doubled the L1 payload capacity, and welcomed two game-changing customers from both new space and government, OneWeb and NASA. And now we have one of the world’s most trusted airplanes to serve as our fully reusable launch platform. With a dedicated air launch vehicle for LauncherOne, and WhiteKnightTwo dedicated specifically to SpaceShipTwo, we look forward to another year of hard work and achievements ahead.”