Sir Richard Branson just strapped a giant rocket to a 747 jet airplane with his space company Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit's modified

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Virgin Orbit’s modified “Cosmic Girl” jet airplane will soar the “Launcher One” orbital rocket to a mid-flight launch.
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Virgin Orbit; Business Insider

Sir Richard Branson’s newest space company, Virgin Orbit, just debuted its full rocket-and-airplane launch system for the first time.

The airplane is a commercial 747-400 jet called “Cosmic Girl,” and the orbital-class rocket is named “LauncherOne.”

Virgin Orbit aims to use the retrofitted jet to tow LauncherOne 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 unfavorable weather conditions,” the company said in an emailed press release.

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 $62 million per flight.

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

Source: Business Insider


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

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

Source: Allied Market Research


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

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

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.

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LauncherOne has been in development since about 2015.
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Virgin Orbit

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.

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Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne orbital rocket.
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Virgin Orbit

Dealing with weather and commercial flight traffic is also an issue.

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LauncherOne rolling out to the specially converted Cosmic Girl jet airplane.
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Virgin Orbit

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.

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

But lighter materials, better avionics, 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.

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Sir 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.
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Virgin Orbit

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.

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Virgin Orbit

One of the first rockets is now finished and preparing for integrated test flights. 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

Source: Virgin Orbit


The rocket is designed to send up 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.

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Virgin Orbit

Source: Virgin Orbit


The company mated (or 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.

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Virgin Orbit

“The fact that we shipped a rocket on this route, positioned it under the aircraft, integrated the system, and verified that 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.

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Virgin Orbit employs more than 300 people.
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Virgin Orbit

Source: Washington Post


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

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Virgin Orbit

After that, Virgin Orbit will try dropping LauncherOne to see how the release mechanism performs. Then it will be time for a maiden launch into space.

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Virgin Orbit

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

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Virgin Orbit