Virgin Galactic announced Dec. 3 that it has purchased a Boeing 747 jetliner to serve as the new carrier aircraft for its LauncherOne small satellite launch vehicle. The aircraft, unveiled during an event at the San Antonio, Texas, facility where the plane is being modified, will allow LauncherOne to carry heavier payloads than if it was launched from the company’s WhiteKnightTwo airplane, as originally planned. The company concluded the 747 was the best choice for carrying the enlarged LauncherOne. This aircraft has as nickname “Cosmic Girl”. Cosmic Girl was built by Boeing in 2001 and delivered to Virgin Atlantic. The aircraft was in commercial service with the airline as recently as October, according to online flight records. The plane last flew Oct. 29, when it traveled from London to San Antonio. Whitesides said the airplane will first undergo extensive inspection and maintenance known in aviation as a “D check” by VT San Antonio Aerospace, the aircraft maintenance company working with Virgin. That work will be completed early next year, after which work will start on modifying the airplane to serve as the LauncherOne platform. LauncherOne will be attached to a pylon mounted on the left wing of the 747, between the fuselage and the left inboard engine. That location was included on the 747 to mount a fifth jet engine when ferrying engines, minimizing the structural modifications needed to the wing. Some structural elements of the wing will be strengthened to accommodate the rocket. There will also be electrical and fluid lines added to service the rocket, and updates to the plane’s avionics to support launches.
That work should be done by late 2016. Virgin Galactic will make those modifications to the 747 in parallel with work on LauncherOne itself. The LauncherOne will be able to carry payloads up to 200 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbits, and up to 400 kilograms to other orbits. Virgin Galactic is completing the assembly of the second SpaceShipTwo, replacing the one lost in an October 2014 accident. The last major structural element of the vehicle, the main oxidizer tank, was installed last month. Virgin Galactic expects to formally roll out the second SpaceShipTwo in early 2016 and start a series of ground and flight tests.