Not Just Virgin: Korean Air Explores Boeing 747 Rocket Launches

The publicity of the billionaire space race over the last few weeks, along with the abolition of decades-old ballistic regulations, seems to have had an impact on Korean cosmic ambitions. Yesterday, Korean Air announced that it had recently commenced research on the feasibility of using civilian Boeing 747s to launch rockets into space.

Boeing 747-8, Value, 2021
Korean Air has launched a research project to see if its 747 aircraft could send satellites into space. Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Overcoming obstacles in fast-growing market

The Korean national airline says that the research could help Korea overcome its geographical challenges for rocket launches. These only allow for the launch of satellites southward from the Naro Space Center, the country’s spaceport located in the southwest province. Surface-to-air launches are also heavily impacted by weather conditions.

Previously, a bilateral agreement between Korea and the US provided ‘guidelines’ that put a cap on the range of ballistic missiles, thus making an air-launch system out of bounds. However, the two parties scrapped the 40-year-old restrictions in late May this year, and Korean Air sees a niche to be filled on a quickly growing market.

“To attract the fast-growing, worldwide demand for small satellite launches, it is essential to develop capabilities for air launching, which is not affected by weather or geographical conditions,” Korean Air said in a statement on Tuesday,

“We will use our extensive experience operating aircraft and expertise in the aerospace business, which includes aircraft system integration and assembling Korea’s first space launch vehicle, Naro, to develop an air-launch system that is competitive in the global market” the carrier continued.

Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne
Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl has completed two successful launch flights to date. Photo: Getty Images

Taking after Virgin’s Cosmic Girl

Commissioned by the Republic of Korea Air Force and conducted in collaboration with Seoul National University, the project will follow in the footsteps, or rather, flight path, of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne project. This is a two-stage cryogenically fueled rocket launched from a Boeing 747. Specifically, Virgin Orbit has modified a 747-400 previously flying for its sister company and airline Virgin Atlantic, and aptly named ‘Cosmic Girl’.

Cosmic Girl completed its first successful launch in January this year, and a second one followed in June. The latest, which took place on June 30th, was the first commercial operation for the endeavor. The Tubular Bells: Part One project launched payloads for three different customers from three different nations – the US Department of Defense Space Test Program, Polish satellite firm SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

Cosmic Girl
Cosmic Girl just recently completed her first commercial mission. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Korean Air’s Boeing 747 fleet

Korean Air says the project will analyze the Boeing 747-400’s current technology capability, major technology to be applied, annual operating costs, and necessary aircraft modification for air launching.

Virgin’s Cosmic Girl is a 20-year-old 747-400. Korean has previously operated as many as 27 passenger 747-400s. However, today it only has a fleet of four 747-400 freighters, at an average age of just under 16 years.

Meanwhile, the airline also has a quite large fleet of 747-8s, averaging just over six years. There are 16 in total, of which seven are cargo versions, and the remaining nine passenger aircraft. Due to current circumstances, the passengers 747-8s are parked at either Seoul Incheon or Seoul Gimpo.