Using a Boeing 747 as the launch platform allows Virgin Orbit to send small satellites into orbit from commercial aircraft runways. Credit: Virgin Orbit

MELBOURNE, Fla. — 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.

“We basically wanted to maximize the productive capacity of the Newton engines we were developing” for LauncherOne, said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in a Dec. 3 phone interview. The company studied how big they could make LauncherOne if not constrained by how much WhiteKnightTwo could carry, then looked at what aircraft could handle that vehicle.

The company concluded the 747 was the best choice for carrying the enlarged LauncherOne. Whitesides said the company then did “a very comprehensive survey of the entire commercial aircraft market,” looking for used 747 aircraft with the best combination of cost, flight history and maintenance record.

That search ended up, ironically, with another Virgin company: the airline Virgin Atlantic. “Somewhat to our surprise, the answer was ‘Cosmic Girl,’” Whitesides said, referring to the airplane’s nickname. “It was a relatively young aircraft operated by Virgin Atlantic, and we had a lot of comfort in its maintenance.” Whitesides said Virgin Galactic purchased the plane from Virgin Atlantic, but did not disclose the terms of the deal.

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.

Virgin Galactic test pilot Kelly Latimer stands in front of a model of the 747 that carry LauncherOne, with the actual aircraft in the background, during a Dec. 3 event in San Antonio. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic test pilot Kelly Latimer stands in front of a model of the 747 that will carry LauncherOne, with the actual aircraft in the background, during a Dec. 3 event in San Antonio. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Whitesides said 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, he said, should be done by late 2016.

Virgin Galactic plans to use some of its current pilots to fly the 747 when it enters service. Whitesides said David Mackay, the company’s chief test pilot, and Kelly Latimer, a former NASA and U.S. Air Force test pilot hired in November, have experience with the 747.

Virgin Galactic will make those modifications to the 747 in parallel with work on LauncherOne itself. “We’re making progress on each of the subsystems,” he said, including the Newton 3 and Newton 4 engines the company is developing to power the rocket and composite propellant tanks.

While Whitesides said earlier this year that Virgin Galactic was expecting to begin LauncherOne test flights by late 2016, that schedule has slipped. “We anticipate being able to do orbital tests in 2017,” he said.

The decision to increase the size of LauncherOne and fly it from a 747 is a departure from the company’s original plans, which called for using the same WhiteKnightTwo airplane that Scaled Composites developed for Virgin Galactic for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane. WhiteKnightTwo will now be used exclusively for SpaceShipTwo missions.

The more powerful LauncherOne will be able to carry payloads up to 200 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbits, and up to 400 kilograms to other orbits. That increase in performance allows LauncherOne to accommodate a wider range of satellites.

“We’re having a lot of conversations” with potential customers, Whitesides said. Besides the June contract for 39 launches of communications satellites for OneWeb and an October contract with NASA as part of the agency’s Venture Class Launch Services program, he said Virgin Galactic has signed a couple more contracts with undisclosed customers. “I think we’ll have more and more business as we get closer to our test launches,” he said.

Separately, Whitesides said 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, he said. Virgin Galactic expects to formally roll out the second SpaceShipTwo in early 2016 and start a series of ground and flight tests shortly thereafter.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...