Virgin Galactic has announced that upcoming launches of its LauncherOne rocket will be carried out with the help of a Boeing 747 plane. The rocket will be used to take small satellites into orbit quickly and cheaply, without the need for costly vertical launches.
The modified 747, nicknamed the “Cosmic Girl,” will replace the existing WhiteKnightTwo for these unmanned launches. WhiteKnightTwo is a vast mothership plane that will be used for launches of Virgin Galactic, which will take paying tourists into space, and had been intended for LauncherOne as well, but the company has now taken a different approach.
According to the company, using a Boeing 747 will allow for more frequent and varied launches, with the plane able to take flight from a number of locations and release satellites into wide-ranging orbits.
The LauncherOne rocket will be attached to the left wing of the plane and carried into the air. It will then detach and ignite, taking a small satellite to orbital speed and launching it into orbit, while the plane returns to the ground to be used again. Other rockets, like Orbital Sciences' Pegasus, operate in a similar manner.
"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, in a statement. "Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices."
An artist's impression of LauncherOne. Virgin Galactic
Launching in this manner, rather than a vertical launch from the ground, allows for a relatively cheaper method to reach orbit. It can launch satellites of more than 400 kilograms (880 pounds), with prices starting around $10 million (£6.6 million), a factor of 10 cheaper than a regular launch. Although Virgin Galactic has not revealed exact pricing yet, it is expected to be significantly less expensive than a full orbital launch from the ground.
The rocket itself is discarded after each use, but the 747 can be reused again and again for launches like this, providing companies with a low-cost option to reach space. "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," Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson said in the 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!"
As mentioned, WhiteKnightTwo will continue to be used for launches of the Virgin Galactic spaceplane, which is still awaiting a return to flight after the tragedy last year that saw test pilot Michael Alsbury killed when the unique feathering system, used to return from space through the atmosphere, was accidentally activated at high speed.
Check out a video of LauncherOne in action below.