Video Shows Virgin Orbit's 'Cosmic Girl' Boeing 747 Strapped to LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s satellite-launching service, completed its first successful test flight of the LauncherOne rocket paired with a modified jet plane dubbed the “Cosmic Girl” in Southern California on Sunday. The unlikely duo form part of the company’s plan to send small satellites into space as a competitor to Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture.
The “Cosmic Girl” is an impressive beast. It’s a converted Boeing 747-400 that started out life as part of the Virgin Atlantic fleet, and Sunday’s launch marks the first time a 747 has ever carried a rocket. Branson has described the modification as “the ultimate upcycling.” The LauncherOne attached weighs 57,000 pounds and measures 70 feet long, with the ability to travel 20 times the speed of sound at 17,500 mph. Unlike regular launches that sometimes take between 18 and 24 months for a ground launch, the pairing enables Virgin Orbit to send a satellite out at the right orbit within 24 hours.
The plan is to equip the LauncherOne with satellites somewhere between 660 and 1,100 pounds. The team will then send the pair up to a height of 30,000 feet or more, before the rocket sets off and produces more than 80,000 pounds of thrust. Virgin Orbit claims it can support orbital inclinations anywhere between zero and 120 degrees.
Virgin has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to beat SpaceX, though. Elon Musk’s firm has launched 69 rockets over its history, 18 of which took place in 2017. SpaceX plans a total of 30 launches for 2018. Central to its goals are rocket reusability, with 31 cores landed in total. SpaceX has a planned goal of launching, landing and reusing the same rocket in just 24 hours. It’s also working on the BFR that could help with launches.
Virgin has a tough challenge ahead, but it remains confident that it will reach orbit early next year.