Virgin Galactic has announced that a 747-400 commercial airliner, dubbed ‘Cosmic Girl’ and formerly used by Virgin Atlantic, will join the company’s LauncherOne satellite launch service. The 747 will serve as a launch platform for the LauncherOne orbital vehicle, taking over from WhiteKnightTwo, and was selected for its large rocket carrying capacity, wide availability of parts, long range, and ability to fly in all kinds of weather. Plus, you can fly a 747 out of thousands of runways.
“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,” said Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic founder, in a statement. “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 company will mount the LauncherOne rocket to the 747 under the left wing, where some other 747s have carried a fifth engine. The company doubled its payload capacity to 440 pounds, and can deliver satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit for “a price below $10 million,” with the ability to buy launches to other altitudes or inclinations at up to 880 pounds. Space enthusiasts will remember the 747 served as a test flight vehicle for the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program, Pratt and Whitney’s flying testbed, and the X-45 Phantom Ray.
Welcome the newest vehicle in our fleet: 747 “Cosmic Girl,” dedicated #LauncherOne carrier https://t.co/kghwXoZiwu pic.twitter.com/HjFXVVwtzT
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 3, 2015
“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.”
WhiteKnightTwo, Virgin Galactic‘s carrier aircraft, will continue to function as mothership for SpaceShipTwo for suborbital flight service out of Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Branson’s announcement marks the first time we’ve seen something new from Virgin Galactic since the tragic SpaceShipTwo crash in 2014 that killed one of the pilots and injured the other; here’s hoping all systems are go once again for the company.