Virgin is betting its future space prospects on airborne launch and its spinoff Virgin Orbit has just been given a license for a first attempt!
Virgin Orbit – the sister company to Virgin Galactic – is betting that it can push down the cost of satellite launches by having rockets blast off from under the wings of a 747.
The company intend to use modified commercial 747s are high-flying launchpads for rockets.
The company intend to use a modified Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft – nicknamed Cosmic Girl – as their mothership. She will fly to 35,000 feet with a two-stage expendable rocket strapped to her underside. Once at the right height the “Launcher One” rocket will blast off using a 73.5k-lb engine. Firing for six minutes, “Launcher One” can then deliver its payload into orbit while the plane returns home for its next flight.
The company believe that by using a plane they can launch to more locations, and avoid common delays (like bad weather).
Orbit has now been awarded a commercial space transportation license from the USA FDA (Federal Aviation Administration) to allow it to start testing its launch system.
Up to now, Orbit has been limited to only test flying its Cosmic Girl mothership from its Mojave Desert base. The next step will now be modifying the craft with launch struts to hold the rocket to a mid-air launch. Initially, the company will just test how Cosmic Girl performs with the modifications before fully integrating the rocket and testing its release mechanism before proceeding onto orbital flights.
The company has yet to announce a timeline for testing or when it believes its system will become operational.