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LauncherOne fit check
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket undergoes fit checks underneath a 747 jet that’s been modified to serve as a carrier airplane. (Virgin Orbit Photo via Twitter)

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.

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.

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