Like SpaceX founder Elon Musk or Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos, British billionaire Richard Branson has long had his sights set on space travel. Unlike Musk and Bezos, however, Branson believes aircraft assisted launches are the secret to making trips to the stars more affordable.
It’s with that ultimate goal in mind that Branson built “Cosmic Girl”: the first 747 ever converted for the purposes of carrying and launching space-bound rockets. According to Virgin Orbit, an arm of Branson’s aerospace empire, “Cosmic Girl” will ferry rockets loaded with small satellites to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where they are released to travel under the own power up into low earth orbit. By launching the rockets from such a high altitude, the costs and risks associated with carrying enough fuel to cover that initial distance are significantly mitigated — but those aren’t the only reasons Branson’s betting on aircraft based launches.
Because the rockets are launched from the wing of a 747 in flight, Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic Girl” eliminates the need for dedicated rocket launch facilities for these small satellite launches. The altitude also alleviates concerns about weather delaying launches and, perhaps most importantly when compared to other aircraft-based launch systems, Virgin Mobile relies on the tried and true Boeing 747 platform. Aside from the custom rocket hard-points on “Cosmic Girl,” she’s otherwise an off-the-shelf model of one of the most common commercial aircraft on the planet. As Virgin Orbit themselves point out in a press release, choosing a tried-and-true platform over a custom built space barge has some distinct advantages.
“The 747-400 aircraft has many attributes that contribute to the ideal dedicated ride for small satellites: the aircraft’s large and robust rocket carrying capacity, operational flexibility, long range, ability to operate in many kinds of weather, and existing 747-400 experience, maintenance, and spare parts supply chains.”
Branson and Virgin Orbit aren’t looking to steal potential crew-carrying missions out from under the likes of SpaceX and Boeing, and that makes sense. It’s expected that the number of small satellites in orbit around the globe will explode in the coming decades, making a cost effective means of delivering those satellites into orbit an industry that’s just on the verge of significant growth. That means Branson’s rocket, dubbed “LauncherOne,” might be just what the market ordered at just 70 feet long and 57,000 pounds. By comparison, SpaceX’s small Falcon 9 rocket is about 230 feet tall and weighs in at 1.2 million pounds.
LauncherOne is expected to begin test flights from the wing of “Cosmic Girl” in the near future, before beginning payload launches for customers they have already secured. Among the first to have payloads delivered into orbit via Branson’s wing-launched rockets will be the U.S. Department of Defense and the Italian satellite manufacturer Sitael.