Virgin Orbit will soon use its modified Boeing 747 to launch satellites into orbit using a rocket strapped to the wing — here's how it works

Virgin Orbit; Business InsiderVirgin Orbit’s modified ‘Cosmic Girl’ jet aeroplane will soar the ‘Launcher One’ orbital rocket to a mid-flight launch.
  • Virgin Orbit’s satellite-launching Boeing 747-400 successfully completed its final developmental test flight on Sunday, five years since its arrival at the space company.
  • The next step for the newest space company of British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is to simulate dropping the wing-mounted rocket named “LauncherOne.”
  • Once the process is fully tested, the company’s 747 will be ready to send rockets with a satellite payload into space.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Sir Richard Branson’s space company, Virgin Orbit, just completed its final developmental test with its Boeing 747-400 jet turned satellite launcher and a fully-fuelled “captive carry” rocket strapped to its wing.

Taking place two years after debuting its full rocket-and-aeroplane launch system for the first time, the successful final test flight paves the way for the launch demonstration when the payload will actually be released from the aircraft and brings the company one step closer to a space launch.

Virgin Orbit aims to use the retrofitted 747 to tow “LauncherOne,” an orbital-class rocket, as high above Earth as possible, release the rocket, and then blast a small-satellite payload into orbit around Earth.

“Air launch frees missions from traffic jams at the existing launch sites; eliminates the need for costly, fixed ground infrastructure; and makes the system more resilient to unfavourable weather conditions,” the company said in an emailed press release.

The next step for Virgin Orbit is to simulate the release mechanism for the rocket to ensure it properly separates from the 747. Once that is complete, the space company will be able to launch rockets into space carrying orbital satellite payloads.

Here’s what the new system looks like.


Sending a rocket into space is astronomically expensive. Even the most affordable launch vehicles today, such as the Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, can cost more than $US62 million per flight.

SpaceX via Flickr (public domain)A Falcon 9 rocket launching toward space.

Source: Business Insider


But the demand to launch smaller, less expensive satellites more frequently is booming, thanks to advances in materials, sensors, and software.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s LauncherOne raised up to the port-side wing of Cosmic Girl.

Source: Allied Market Research


Branson hopes to help meet that demand by exclusively launching smaller payloads more often and more affordably with Virgin Orbit.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s LauncherOne orbital rocket mated to Cosmic Girl.

Giving companies this option for small launches would allow them to avoid having to piggyback on a larger spacecraft into orbit around Earth. That approach — called a ride-share — can make getting into space cheaper, but it comes with headaches.

Virgin OrbitLauncherOne has been in development since about 2015.

The small ride-sharing payloads are tied to bigger, primary payloads, which are controlled by the main spacecraft’s owners. Any delay with the larger spacecraft can push back the launch by months or sometimes years.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s LauncherOne orbital rocket.

Dealing with weather and commercial flight traffic is also an issue when ride-sharing.

Virgin OrbitLauncherOne rolling out to the specially converted Cosmic Girl jet aeroplane.

Virgin Orbit’s 747 provides an aerial launch platform that’s reusable, less costly than a traditional rocket launch, and requires a smaller footprint than a traditional rocket launch. The entirety of the aircraft’s mobile support system is displayed here.

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Virgin Orbit’s entire launch support footprint for the 747.

The Jumbo Jet used by Virgin Orbit comes from another Branson company, Virgin Atlantic Airways.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl.

Source: Planespotters.net


Four General Electric CF6 engines power the 747 and enable the journeys to the upper limits of Earth’s atmosphere.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl.

Source: Planespotters.net


Though retired from the British long-haul airline in 2015, Cosmic Girl kept her iconic Virgin branding and began flying for Virgin Orbit in November of that year.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl.

Source: Planespotters.net


The 747 played a large role in Virgin Atlantic’s history and although the airline is largely retiring the type in favour of more efficient aircraft, Cosmic Girl will carry on the legacy with its new mission for Virgin Orbit.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl.

Virgin Orbit’s air-launch concept isn’t new — it’s used today by a company called Orbital ATK, and NASA and the US military have also used it over the decades.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s LauncherOne orbital rocket attached for the first time to Cosmic Girl.

But lighter materials, better avionics, a more powerful jet, and rocket engines, and other advances have made it an increasingly attractive option. Rockets can be launched more efficiently from the stratosphere, which lowers the cost of sending stuff to orbit.

Virgin OrbitSir Richard Branson inside Cosmic Girl, which has been stripped down to reduce weight and allow Virgin Orbit to attach LauncherOne to its port-side wing.

So Virgin Orbit has been busy designing, building, and testing LauncherOne’s and Cosmic Girl’s systems near Long Beach, California, and at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne.

One of the first rockets has been performing test flights with the aircraft, though filled with water to test weight and balance.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne.

Source: Virgin Orbit


LauncherOne is 70 feet long and weighs 57,000 pounds; it’s about the size of 25 passenger cars.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne.

The rocket is designed to send up anything from bread-loaf-size to refrigerator-size satellites, which “will deliver everything from internet, in even the most remote regions, to advanced weather-tracking systems to help in the battle against climate change,” the company said.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl.

Source: Virgin Orbit


The company attached LauncherOne to a pylon under Cosmic Girl’s wing on Thursday at its base in Long Beach in less than 24 hours. Preparing a rocket for liftoff on a launchpad, including attaching a payload, normally take days to weeks.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

“The fact that we shipped a rocket on this route, positioned it under the aircraft, integrated the system, and verified that it all works together for the first time all within a single day still astounds me,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO, said in a press release.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit employs more than 300 people.

Source: Washington Post


Virgin Orbit’s next step was to pull off a series of “captive carry” flights, in which Cosmic Girl takes off and flies around with LauncherOne attached to its wing.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne.

Source: Virgin Orbit


The final captive carry flight flew on April 12. Here’s a look from its high-attitude pull-up manoeuvre.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne during the final test flight.

Source: Virgin Orbit


The tanks for this flight were filled with liquid nitrogen to simulate the liquid oxygen that will be carried during real launch flights.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne during the final test flight.

Source: Virgin Orbit


Having successfully completed its final developmental test flight, Virgin Orbit will next attempt to drop LauncherOne to see how the release mechanism performs.

Virgin OrbitA rendition of Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, dropping LauncherOne.

Source: Virgin Orbit


Then it will be time for a maiden launch into space.

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Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne.

“The company already has hundreds of millions of dollars of launches on contract, for customers ranging from NASA and the US Department of Defence to new start-ups, and everything in between,” Virgin Orbit said in a press release.

Virgin OrbitVirgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne.

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