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Virgin Galactic 747
An artist’s conception shows a Virgin Galactic 747 jet carrying a LauncherOne rocket. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic showed off its latest mothership today: a Boeing 747-400 jet that it acquired from its corporate cousins at Virgin Atlantic to serve as the platform for its LauncherOne rocket.

LauncherOne is designed to be launched from a high-flying carrier airplane and send small-scale satellites into orbit. It will use a liquid-fueled engine called Newton, which is still under development. The launch system is expected to be in operation by 2018, and it’s already been tapped by OneWeb to help put a global Internet constellation into orbit.

It was previously thought that LauncherOne would use Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. That’s the mothership being used for SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered passenger space plane. But Virgin Galactic said the 747 was more suited for LauncherOne’s upgraded payload capacity and flight rate.

The jet, delivered to Virgin in 2001 and nicknamed “Cosmic Girl,” was previously used in commercial service. The repurposed airplane was unveiled today in San Antonio. In its new incarnation, it will retain the Cosmic Girl mascot that’s also used on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that Cosmic Girl can stay in the Virgin family — and truly live up to her name,” Virgin founder Richard Branson said in a news release.

The shift to a 747 frees up WhiteKnightTwo to be used exclusively for SpaceShipTwo flights, the company said.

The first SpaceShipTwo was destroyed in October 2014 during a test flight in which the co-pilot was killed and the pilot was seriously injured. An investigation traced the cause of that tragedy to a combination of human error, equipment design, training lapses and regulatory gaps. A second SpaceShipTwo is currently under construction, with flight tests expected to begin next year.

Eventually, SpaceShipTwo is due to carry passengers to the edge of outer space. About 700 customers have signed up so far, paying as much as $250,000 per seat. In the wake of last year’s accident, Virgin Galactic has shied away from predicting the time frame for the start of commercial operations.

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