Virgin Orbit Using Its Fleet Of 747s As Rocket Launchers

With commercial space travel emerging further and further into the public sphere, Virgin Orbit is now using its 747s to launch rockets.

By Charlene Badasie | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

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Virgin Orbit, a company that provides launch services for small satellites, is assembling a fleet of modified 747 jets. As such, the Richard Branson founded outfit is acquiring two additional airframes through L3Harris. The company will modify the jets to carry and launch more rockets into space. The California-based firm expects to have the first plane delivered sometime next year. The timing of the second plane will be driven by market demand for launches.

Speaking about the deal to CNBC, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said it unleashes Virgin Orbit in a few different ways. “It eliminates one of the key chokepoints that we have in the system,” he told the publication. The move will help the company to keep launches going in instances where one of the aircraft is undergoing maintenance. In turn, this will create all kinds of possibilities for supporting different customers in different places.

At present, Virgin Orbit has a single personalized Boeing 747-400 called Cosmic Girl. So far it has flown four missions of the company’s LauncherOne rocket. It works through a technique known as air launch, whereby the plane carries its rockets to around 45,000 ft of altitude. The rockets are then dropped earlier than they fireplace their engines and speed up into space. The corporate touts this technique as more versatile than ground-based methods.

Hart didn’t specify the financial details of the deal with L3Harris, however, it’s common knowledge that the going rate for a 747 airframe is within the single-digit millions. Interestingly, Virgin Orbit’s new 747s will also feature an improved structure, with L3Harris modifying the plane to carry two LauncherOne rockets. Additionally, it will be able to carry all of the company’s ground support equipment to a launch site.

Hart was rather excited about the prospect of easier transportation of the rockets and related gear. As such he told CNBC, “The ability to deploy two rockets and all the ground equipment in one airplane, fly somewhere, set it up, and all of a sudden you’ve got a launch base somewhere is pretty unique.” Moreover, he said it adds a certain level of unpredictability for the national security community. And it creates better economics for spaceports.

Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit’s next scheduled launch is for the Pentagon. The company will carry seven government satellites planned for June 29th. The California-based firm also expects to carry out its first international mission, launching from Cornwall in the United Kingdom. To prepare for that launch, Hart said they will do a complete trial run of the rocket at Mojave Air and Space Port in California which is the current base of operations. After that, Cosmic Girl and its equipment will be shipped to the U.K.

By adding more aircraft to their felt, Virgin Orbit will have more flexibility to serve international demand. The company currently has launch agreements with Japan, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. There are also memorandums of understanding between Poland and Oman. According to Hart, the corporate is having discussions with half a dozen other countries as well. They are also looking into governments owning the aircraft and just providing launch services for their countries.