Satellites Fired Into Space From Ex-Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747

The ex-Virgin Boeing 747 known as Cosmic Girl has completed another successful satellite launch. The aircraft deployed Launcher One into orbit yesterday, delivering seven new satellites into their target orbit. This brings the total payloads delivered by the unique launch system to 26 in less than a year of operations.

Virgin Orbit
Cosmic Girl has undertaken another successful launch. Photo: Virgin Orbit

New life for ex-Virgin 747

For most passenger Boeing 747s, end of service is a pretty unglamorous affair. Some might have a brief life extension hauling cargo, some might be lucky enough to be preserved, but for the majority, the scrap heap is their final destination. But for one privileged ex-Virgin Atlantic 747, life after passenger service couldn’t be more exciting.

Cosmic Girl is a modified Boeing 747-400, operated by Virgin Atlantic from 2001 to 2015 as G-VWOW. Today, it belongs to a somewhat different member of the Virgin family, Virgin Galactic, flying under registration number N744VG. It has been modified to carry a rocket – Launcher One – underneath its wing, and is spearheading a step-change in the way satellites are launched into space.

Virgin Orbit
Cosmic Girl’s new job is delivering satellites into space. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Yesterday afternoon, Cosmic Girl took off from a runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Its mission, called ‘Above the Clouds,’ involved delivering a payload of seven customer satellites into orbit. With the success of this mission, it brings Virgin Orbit’s total launches to 26 satellites in under a year of operations.

Above the Clouds

Yesterday’s mission took off from California at 13:39 Pacific time and headed out to the launch site over the Pacific Ocean. Proceeding to an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet (10.7 km), the captain began the maneuver that allows Launcher One to successfully deploy.

Piloting this mission was RAF fighter pilot Matthew Stannard, who the BBC reports is on secondment to the firm. Positioning the 747 for launch, he released the rocket and it went into a four-second freefall. As Cosmic Girl banked to the right, Launcher One’s rockets ignited and it began to climb to its orbit.

Virgin Orbit
The launch enabled the payload to deliver to a previously unreachable orbit. Photo: Virgin Orbit

As well as being a far cheaper and more environmentally friendly means of getting satellites into orbit, the Virgin Orbit solution also opens new means of getting payloads into specific orbital locations. The target orbit for this mission was around 500 km above Earth at an inclination of 45 degrees. Virgin Orbit says this is the first time that orbit has been reachable from the West Coast.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart noted the advantages of using an aircraft for the launch, explaining,

“Our customers are starting to hear back from their satellites that are checking in from orbit – and for us, that’s what success looks like. It’s a thrill for our team that this mission included our first repeat customers as well as our first ‘last minute ticket’ customers and reached an orbit that no one had ever reached from the West Coast before, all of which confirms the team’s ability to provide top tier launch service anywhere, anytime.

“On top of that, we flew through weather and a cloud layer that would have grounded any other launch I’ve worked on in my career, something only made possible by air-launch and our incredible team. We can say with confidence that in this new era of regular, frequent, successful missions, we can help our customers and partners use space technology to advance human knowledge and open space for good.”

Virgin Orbit
The launch service will relocate to the UK later this year. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit plans to move Cosmic Girl’s operations to the UK later this year. As soon as June or July, the 747 could begin flying out of Spaceport Cornwall, based at Newquay Airport. In total, the firm has six space missions planned this year, two of which will fly out of the UK, as long as the licensing paperwork is finalized with the CAA in time.

If you’re wondering about the name of the mission, Virgin advises that it was named after the fifth track on Gang Starr’s 1998 album Moment of Truth, featuring Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan. The record was released by Virgin Records in collaboration with Noo Trybe Records and is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.