What do you get when you cross a Boeing 747 with a rocket launcher? You get something like what you see in the pictures that Virgin Orbit sent out today, showing a LauncherOne rocket tucked beneath the wing of a modified 747 that’s been christened “Cosmic Girl.”
Such a system is designed to serve as Virgin Orbit’s air-launch platform for putting payloads weighing up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) in orbit. Future customers include OneWeb, which is working on a constellation of satellites for global internet access; and Seattle-based Spaceflight, which handles the logistics for small-satellite launches.
Virgin Orbit, a sister company to British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, has been working on the system for years. The concept calls for a LauncherOne rocket and its payload to be attached to a pylon hanging down from Cosmic Girl’s left wing. When the jet reaches its target altitude of 35,000 feet, the two-stage rocket is dropped from the pylon and fires up its Newton engines to head for orbit.
You’ve seen photos of our rocket. You’ve flown on 747s. But it’s hard to fully appreciate the scale of our flexible, affordable satellite launch system until you see our vehicles together!
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) October 24, 2018
Capping off a great day of firsts, we mated our #LauncherOne rocket to #CosmicGirl, our customized 747, as the sun set over the beautiful @LBAirport. An excellent way to cap off a smooth and successful day! pic.twitter.com/d0pDsJUa9u
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) October 25, 2018
This type of air-launch system has been used for decades, but California-based Virgin Orbit aims to reduce the cost by using advanced technologies ranging from carbon composite materials to 3-D printing. Virgin Orbit says the cost of a launch should range somewhere around $12 million.
The system’s main advantage is its versatility and its capacity for quick-turnaround launches. Theoretically, Cosmic Girl can take off from any runway that can accommodate a 747 — and release its rocket in any direction. “Pre-encapsulated” satellites could be loaded and launched in less than a day.
Cosmic Girl has been going through test flights for months, but it hasn’t yet taken to the air with a rocket attached to its pylon. Today’s fit checks suggest that Virgin Orbit is finally getting close to starting captive-carry tests, with rocket drop tests following soon afterward.
If all proceeds according to plan, Virgin Orbit’s first launch could take place by the end of this year.