Virgin Galactic will convert a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet to launch the firm’s rocket LauncherOne from high altitude.
Dubbed the Cosmic Girl, the jumbo jet, which originally served with the Virgin Atlantic airlines, will be adapted so that it can accommodate the launcher under its wing. This arrangement, the firm said, will enable LauncherOne’s capacity to be increased to 400kg.
"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 the Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. “I never imagined that today one of our 747s would get a second chance and help open access to space.”
According to the company's engineers, the 747-400 is an ‘ideal’ launchpad thanks to its rocket carrying capacity, long range and all-weather capability. Moreover, it can take off from most commercial airports, providing flexibility to satellite operators.
"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 Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
"Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices."
LauncherOne is Virgin Galactic’s attempt to grab a slice of the booming small satellite market. There is currently no dedicated rocket for delivering cubesats and nanosats to orbit and their operators have to wait for convenient space on larger rockets delivering big satellites to orbit.
With LauncherOne, Virgin Galactic wants to give small satellite operators the opportunity to launch their spacecraft when and where they want for less than £6.6m.
Virgin Galactic has already secured contracts for LauncherOne to deliver to space the minisatellite constellation OneWeb, designed to beam Internet to space to people in remote areas and developing countries.
In October this year, Virgin Galactic was among three companies awarded contracts by Nasa to deliver small satellites to space.
Virgin Galactic, most famous for developing a spaceship for suborbital space tourism, has suffered a major setback last year after its manned SpaceShipOne exploded above the Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and injuring the other.
An investigation into the tragedy by the US National Transportation Safety Body found the crash was caused by a catastrophic structural failure triggered when the co-pilot unlocked the craft's braking system early.
The investigators said that Virgin Galactic inadequate pilot training as well as lack of consideration for lessons already known elsewhere in transportation were the major culprits of the accident.
Also launched from air, SpaceShipTwo is carried to high altitude by a specially built aircraft called the WhiteKnightTwo
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