Virgin Galactic thinks ground-based rockets are so 2016. Instead, the corporation’s new aerospace company has a plan to fly a specially modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet into the stratosphere and launch a rocket strapped to the plane’s belly, carrying a payload into space with far less effort than one blasting off vertically from the ground.
On Thursday, the company announced Virgin Orbit, a new commercial space company headquartered in Long Beach, California which will oversee the LauncherOne program. LauncherOne refers to the combination Boeing 747-400 (nicknamed “Cosmic Girl”) and rocket combination that Virgin wants to use to put small satellites in space with minimal effort and cost.
So far, Orbit has 200 employees that the company describes as “experienced aerospace professionals,” including President Dan Hart, a 34-year Boeing veteran that Virgin poached to lead the new company. Hart will have an 180,000 square foot facility in Long Beach to work with, which should be more than enough to fine-tune the LauncherOne rocket and Cosmic Girl as well.
“To me, the Virgin brand is about making life on Earth better,” Hart said in a statement. “We are going to fulfill that purpose by accessing Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to connect billions of people and enabling valuable applications of data from space through Virgin Orbit’s flexible, affordable, and reliable launch service.”
LauncherOne isn’t built for large payloads like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse or its massive Falcon Heavy. Instead, LauncherOne hopes to fill the niche of microsatellite delivery, delivering small payloads independently. Previously, microsatellites had to hitchhike on larger rocket launches, which meant companies didn’t have as much control over when and where they went into space.
“I’m thrilled that our small satellite launch service has now progressed to the point it merits the formation of its own company, Virgin Orbit, and a new president in Dan with decades of deep experience and success in a broad variety of space programs,” said Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
Orbit joins Virgin Galactic, the company’s human spaceflight company, and its design firm The Spaceship Company in the Virgin Group’s aerospace wing, Galactic Ventures.