Virgin Galactic has confirmed that it will use an ex-Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 as a dedicated air-launch carrier (Stage Zero) for the LauncherOne two-stage expendable orbital rocket. The move to this air-launch aircraft, which previously operated as an airliner under the nickname ‘Cosmic Girl’, was made necessary after the firm doubled the planned LauncherOne’s performance to 200kg into a Sun-synchronous near-polar low Earth orbit (LEO). This resulted in the new LauncherOne vehicle becoming too large and heavy for the WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicle (still used for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital passenger carrying craft) to carry. The combined LauncherOne/747-400 launch system is reportedly capable of launching over 400kg of payload to other LEOs. Flights for unmanned orbital spacecraft will be made available at a launch price set below US$10 million.
The Boeing 747-400 will still be able to take off on four engines while carrying the fully fuelled launch vehicle (it had been suggested that one engine might need to be removed). The LauncherOne rocket will be mounted under the left wing in a position that is usually employed to carry/ferry spare jet engines.
Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson said: “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. 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!”
Initial inspections and tests of Cosmic Girl have been completed and, prior to the start of the wing modification, regular maintenance checks will be conducted by VT San Antonio Aerospace. A maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) organisation, VT San Antonio Aerospace has re-delivered more than 3,000 aircraft.