Virgin Galactic Unveils 747 for LauncherOne Flights

LauncherOne ignites after being released from Galactic Girl. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, December 3, 2015 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic introduced the newest addition to its fleet of vehicles today as part of a technical update on its LauncherOne small satellite launch service. The 747-400 commercial jet aircraft, previously operated by Virgin Atlantic under the nickname ‘Cosmic Girl,’ will provide a dedicated launch platform for the LauncherOne orbital vehicle. Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic engineers announced the acquisition of the aircraft while providing an update on LauncherOne development progress.

“Air launch enables us to provide rapid, responsive service to our satellite customers on a schedule set by their business and operational needs, rather than the constraints of national launch ranges,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO. “Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices.”

In September, Virgin Galactic announced that in response to customer demand, it had doubled LauncherOne’s performance to 200kg into the standard Sun-Synchronous Orbit for a price below US$10 million, with the option to purchase further increases in performance to the same orbit and for launches that reach other altitudes or inclinations. The launch system is capable of launching over 400kg of payload to other orbits.

Galactic Girl 747 with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Cosmic Girl 747 with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft will remain the mothership for SpaceShipTwo, enabling spaceship customers to enjoy a dedicated platform for suborbital spaceflight services out of Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The 747 is one of the most accomplished and reliable aircraft ever built. It has an established track record of supporting a variety of special missions, including the Space Shuttle Enterprise test flight program, NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program, the Pratt and Whitney flying testbed, and flight test of the X-45 ‘Phantom Ray.’ The LauncherOne team described additional qualities that make the 747 ideal for the orbital launch platform mission: the aircraft’s large and robust rocket carrying capacity, operational flexibility, long range, ability to operate in many kinds of weather, as well as years of existing 747-400 experience, maintenance, and spare parts supply chains. The carrier aircraft can also be deployed from any runway capable of 747 operations.

Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson: “The Boeing 747 has a very special place in my heart: we began service on my first airline, Virgin Atlantic, with just one leased 747. I never imagined that today one of our 747s would get a second chance and help open access to space. I’m absolutely thrilled that Cosmic Girl can stay in the Virgin family — and truly live up to her name!”

The LauncherOne rocket will be mounted to the carrier aircraft under the left wing, adjacent to the position that has been used by other 747s to ferry a fifth engine. Initial inspections and tests of Cosmic Girl have already been completed and, prior to the start of the wing modification, a regularly scheduled maintenance check will be conducted by VT San Antonio Aerospace. A maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) organization, VT San Antonio Aerospace has over the years re-delivered more than 3,000 aircraft.

Virgin Galactic President Steve isakowitz said, “2015 has been a year of incredible progress. Our LauncherOne team moved into a 150,000 square foot facility for design and manufacturing, grew to more than 150 dedicated staff, completed multiple long-duration hot fires of our liquid rocket engines, doubled the L1 payload capacity, and welcomed two game-changing customers from both new space and government, OneWeb and NASA. And now we have one of the world’s most trusted airplanes to serve as our fully reusable launch platform. With a dedicated air launch vehicle for LauncherOne, and WhiteKnightTwo dedicated specifically to SpaceShipTwo,we look forward to another year of hard work and achievements ahead.”

  • Hemingway

    I seriously question the use of ” Cosmic Girl.”This is the 1287th Boeing 747 built. It was delivered to Virgin Atlantic in 2001. It is 14 years old and one of the oldest in the fleet.

  • Solartear

    “2015 has been a year of incredible progress. Our LauncherOne team … doubled the L1 payload capacity”

    It would be great “progress” if any L1 had been demonstrated in some way. Maybe they will get in static fire tests in 2016?

  • Douglas Messier

    They have been doing some engine tests. But, you’re right: announcing that you’ve suddenly doubled the capacity of the vehicle on paper is a long way from actually flying. But, if you’re as PR and image obsessed as Branson is, these distinctions tend to blur.

    The change also pushed back their schedule by about a year. The rocket’s also too heavy to fly aboard WK2, so a change to a larger aircraft had more to do with necessity than keeping future astronauts happy.

  • Dave Salt

    I’d love to see this succeed because I see air-launch as a key enabler to future space access.

    What they’re doing is basically an updated version of Pegasus, using liquid propellants, which may give them an edge in terms of production costs – I believe they’re aiming at a price of less than $10million per flight.

    Unfortunately, VG’s history suggests this is just another knee jerk reaction to maintain the PR machine’s momentum… remember, ‘Virgin’ is primarily a brand.

  • TimR

    14 yo is pretty young for a 747. Median age of on service 747s is probably more like 20. Anyone know, Google it?

  • TimR

    If only they could find a “bigger boat” for Jaws, aka SS2 _and_ that would solve all their problems.

  • Charlie

    Not to mention, that it is likely to see significantly fewer cycles as a launch platform than it would in passenger service.

  • Rocketplumber

    The mission profile would be a mild one- only a few hours worth of fuel and a relatively light payload on the wing would make for light loads and little structural fatigue on a typical flight. Indeed, so lightly loaded that a pull-up maneuver could add some much-appreciated gamma to the rocket at separation.

  • JS_faster

    Has any other 747 had a hardpoint/pylon attached to the wing before?

  • justchaz

    “…..primarily a brand”
    You may have misgivings about the company but to say anything is primarily a brand is quite laughable. Time and money is not spent just to have a brand. Primary function of a brand is to in turn aid the primary function of its owning entity; selling whatever it sells. That, is primary.

  • ThomasLMatula

    All B747s already have a hard point on their wings to allow transport of an engine if needed. Here is an image of one in use.

    http://australianaviation.com.au/2011/07/qantas-744-ferries-spare-engine-to-johannesburg/

    I expect that is what they will modify for the rocket.

  • JS_faster

    I’d forgotten about the ferry mount. Thanks.

  • Sam Moore

    Stargazer was 20 years old when Orbital started using it and is over 40 now.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    You do realize that the current price for a OA Pegasus flight is about $50M with a launch aircraft that do not met current noise regulations at civilian airports.

    There is also a big difference between a liquid motor launcher and a solid motor launcher in terns of performance. Also you are not carry aound tonnes of explosives in the form of the solid motors.

  • JS_faster

    Virgin Group is a brand that uses flamboyant marketing to promote all of its business lines. Thus far Virgin Galactic has simply been an exercise in that. Even if VG does actually start revenue service, it will be a tiny sub-set of their other line’s profitability. Which is fine, although we all probably hope they actually put something in space someday.

  • duheagle

    Chronological age is far less important wrt aircraft than is the number of takeoff and landing cycles the airframe has been subjected to. I’d be interested in knowing what this number is for Cosmic Girl.

  • mzungu

    Tanks explode too.

  • mzungu

    They can find more customer than Pegasus, because????

    They can make it cheaper than Orbital, because ?????

  • James Hutton

    So I guess that so far they’ve repainted a 747. Great progress 🙂

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Usually not until after ignition during liftoff for liquid motors. Some solid motors got RDX as part of their composition. So with age may become unstable. Solid motors are are a lot more delicate than an empty tank while you move them around.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    As a launch platform, yes. But the secret sauce here is to keep the airplane in revenue service for cargo flights. That is what makes it possible to undercut Pegasus on price.

  • mzungu

    Arm forces from around the world been handling solid rocket/missiles with high school graduates for the last 50 years. 😛

  • Dave Salt

    This would certainly make sense (e.g. Zero Gravity Corporation did this with their 727) but I hadn’t seen it stated in any of the news reports… do you have a source for it?

  • Dave Salt

    Yes, I know about the things you mention and they should give VG a distinct advantage.

    What concerns me is that VG seem to jump into and between each venture as a way of distracting attention from serious problems, without any hint of how they fit together as part of a long-term strategy.

  • Dave Salt

    Take a look at this article…
    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/4d4fb05e-64cd-11e4-bb43-00144feabdc0.html
    …which includes the following statement…

    “…royalties – income from allowing companies to use the Virgin brand name – have increased substantially in recent years and their weight in the overall VGH investment portfolio has risen accordingly. Revenues from the brand, which are mainly licensed by Virgin Enterprises, now amount to about £120m a year. The brand is valued on a discounted cash flow basis at roughly £1bn, and it thus accounts for a significant proportion of VGH’s overall value of £5-5.5bn.”

  • TimAndrews868

    ” to promote all of its business lines.”

    Really, to promote it’s brand, which includes its business lines and other businesses which license its brand.

    The more Virgin Group promotes its name, the more valuable the brand, and the more it can charge in royalties to its licensees.

  • TimAndrews868

    “Our LauncherOne team … doubled the L1 payload capacity”

    Can someone remind me? What is the largest payload Launcher One ever carried to orbit? What would double that be?

  • TimAndrews868

    I’d never heard about that before. That’s pretty cool.

  • Larry J

    Personally, I’d design the system to take off with the rocket’s propellant tanks empty and fuel them once you’re airborne. If you have a takeoff emergency, it’d be better to not have a fully fueled bomb under your wing. At the very least, I’d want the ability to top off the LOX tanks.

  • Dave Salt

    Safety is certainly a good reason to use in-flight LOx transfer but would require a second aircraft and so add to the operations costs, even if it were bought-in as a service.

    In-flight LOx transfer would also enables a far larger launcher but, as the VG rocket is probably much smaller than the 747’s cargo capacity (108t), provides no performance benefit in this particular case. Also, given the 747’s cargo margin, topping off LOx could be done from storage tanks located within the 747.

  • Larry J

    No, you could put cryro dewars inside the 747’s cabin. There’s no need for a second aircraft. I may be wrong, but I think they could top off the LOX tanks on the X-15 from the B-52 mothership back in the 1960s.

  • Rick Visscher

    Some more info spreading around.

    “The aircraft was retired from Virgin Atlantic’s fleet in late October and flown to
    San Antonio for baseline aerodynamic and structural testing in readiness for
    full-scale modification in 2016. The initial assessment, conducted at
    Texas-based MRO provider VT San Antonio Aerospace, will be followed by a full D
    check maintenance inspection. “The D check will be complete around late January
    2016. Then we will work with our modification contractor to reposition the
    aircraft and strengthen the structure of the inboard right wing to hold a
    55,000-lb. rocket as well as with significant margin for future work,” says
    John Couluris, head of launch systems at Virgin Galactic.

    Modifications will include installation of a removable payload adaptor which
    will interface between the wing and the launch vehicle. The adaptor will connect
    to the inboard lower wing surface at a specially strengthened section
    originally designed into the 747 for the carriage of spare engines. The aft
    “canoe” flap fairing on the inboard trailing edge flap will also be
    reduced in size to ensure adequate clearance between the aft end of the
    launcher and the flap.

    The adaptor, which will include redundant actuation and fail-safe separation
    connections, will be attached to the 55,000-lb. launcher with three hooks.
    Attachment points will be located on the casing close to the forward end of the
    liquid oxygen tank on the first stage and between the aft end of the same tank
    and the front end of the first-stage RP-1 fuel tank, says LauncherOne chief
    engineer Kevin Sagis. “When it releases from those points, we expect the loads
    will be reduced,” he says. “The plan is to do wind tunnel tests of
    the rocket by itself and perform separation analysis using computational fluid
    dynamics.” Captive-carry, separation and initial launch tests will take place
    from the company’s facilities in Mojave, California, in 2017.”

    I think these guys are stepping into a business for which they have no
    idea what it’s going to cost them. $10
    million per launch, I find that hard to imagine. Also, I wonder who the modification
    contractor is, could it be Marshall’s of Cambridge?
    55,000 pound rocket, close to same weight as Pegasus, different hook
    pattern, 3 hooks compared to 5. This thing is probably going to drop 10,000
    feet befour it starts, gains enough speed and gets some lift. I would think that lighting a liquid RP1/LOX rocket is slower to full thrust compared to a chemical rocket.

  • Dave Salt

    That’s exactly what my last sentence said… I thought your initial concern was having the LOx aboard the same combined vehicle set at take-off.

  • Douglas Messier

    So far, they’ve mainly repainted the aircraft and held a press conference to unveil it.

    I reported on this back in July. Only a few people paid any attention at the time. I guess it’s not news until Virgin issues a press release and Branson shows up somewhere.

  • Malatrope

    I’m glad Branson finally made a decision that might result in a usable launch system. The 747 is a much-underappreciated airframe. I had a conversation with one of the design engineers once, back when I worked for Boeing, who said that the 747 can achieve a ballistic arc higher than 200,000 feet with very few modifications (small rockets to maintain orientation when there isn’t enough air density).

    Boeing could build a vehicle for suborbital tourist flights any day of the week, if they thought there was enough of a market.

  • JS_faster

    Synergies!!!!1!

  • Doug Weathers

    One of the things keeping Pegasus expensive is their low flight rate (which may be caused by the high costs, of course). VG has an order for 39 launches. That should help get the costs down.

  • mzungu

    Good luck finding someone to fly and do a in flight refueling of cryogenics at the transfer rate needed.

  • patb2009

    the more you modify an airframe for launch the less you can use it for cargo or passenger ops. If you load LOX tanks on board and use them to top off the rocket that’s a lot of volume you can’t use for cargo. Say 30% of the aircraft can’t be used for cargo due to dedicated flight systems and now you have an air cargo vehicle that’s 30% more costly then anyone else.

  • Larry J

    Having the LOX inside a strong dewar inside the 747 is far safer than having both propellants in a thin skinned rocket hanging beneath the fuselage.

  • Larry J

    You don’t need to do an inflight refueling. You carry the propellants in strong tanks inside the 747 and fuel the rocket during the climb to altitude. If that isn’t enough time, you continue fueling while flying to the drop location.

  • Dave Salt

    Safety is just one advantage as the Dewar can both minimise boil-off and enable sub-cooling of the LOx that, in turn, allows for smaller/lighter tanks within the rocket.

  • DTARS

    Right back where we were when Kennedy made us do that moon thing lol

  • mzungu

    That make little sense, you rather have the flammable liquid inside the manned vehicle than outside withe the vehicle?

  • Larry J

    Dewars are much stronger than a rocket. They’re far less likely to rupture plus they’re much more protected by aircraft structure.