Virgin Orbit, a new company recently spun off from Virgin Galactic, is gearing up to test a modified Boeing 747 known as "Cosmic Girl" that will be used to carry small rockets up to an altitude of about 35,000 feet, where they will be dropped and launch from the air into space. The 747-400 carrier aircraft, previously operated as an airliner by Virgin Atlantic, landed yesterday at Long Beach Airport near Virgin Orbit's headquarters. The arrival of Cosmic Girl in Long Beach marks the end of 16 months of modification work on the aircraft that was conducted at an L3 Technologies facility in Waco, Texas.
The plane was stripped of over 65,000 pounds of interior cabin components, . The inner left wing was structurally reinforced as well, and Virgin is preparing to install a mount that will ultimately carry the small LauncherOne rockets that Virgin Orbit plans to use with the aircraft. The reinforced wing was designed to carry up to 85,000 lbs., and the LauncherOne rockets are built to deposit up to 880 lbs. of payload into low-Earth orbit.
"We're here to redefine the word 'launchsite.' And we're here to celebrate that," Virgin Orbit President Dan Hart said after Cosmic Girl landed in Long Beach.
The pylon that will hold the rockets is currently in final assembly in Long Beach, and Virgin plans to install the mount on the wing in between the fuselage and inner left engine—a location that Boeing initially designed to . In addition to reinforcing the skin and spars of the wing, Virgin is also adding electric and pneumatic systems that connect the pylon and rocket to the aircraft. Tanks inside the fuselage have also been added to cary gaseous nitrogen and helium for the launch vehicle.
The aircraft arrived in Long Beach after receiving final FAA certification as an experimental aircraft in Mojave, where much of the flight testing will be conducted as well. In the coming weeks, Virgin Orbit will begin ground testing of the newly modified 747, including a second round of vibration tests with a dummy rocket to simulate the mass of LauncherOne.
Flight tests will occur in phases. First Cosmic Girl will undergo "clean" flight tests to analyze the performance of the aircraft without the pylon or rocket. Then the pylon will be mounted and additional flight tests will occur. After that, Virgin Orbit will test the pylon system in flight with an empty rocket, and then a rocket filled with water. The final flight test will be a full dress rehearsal of the pylon and rocket system, fully fueled, to prepare for the first aerial launch test of a LauncherOne rocket dropped from Cosmic Girl. Virgin Orbit has not announced a target date for the first launch, but the aerospace company says it plans to complete flight testing over a four month schedule.
Carrying rockets up to altitude with aircraft and then launching them from the skies is an appealing approach to spaceflight and delivering satellites into orbit. By taking advantage of an aircraft's lift, a rocket doesn't need to overcome all of Earth's gravity to get into space, and the fuel consumption and cost of launches can be significantly reduced. Virgin Orbit is hoping to provide rocket launches for the relatively inexpensive cost of $10 million per launch.
While Virgin has been working for years to prepare a 747 to carry and launch rockets, another company, Paul Allen's Stratolaunch Systems, built a massive, twin-fuselage carrier aircraft for exactly the same purpose. These two giant birds are almost ready to carry rockets up into the atmosphere, and then we will see if aerial launches are destined to be the next big thing in spaceflight.