Photos by Asia Morris.
Long Beach-based commercial space company Virgin Orbit is now one giant step closer to being able to launch small satellites into orbit.
On Monday afternoon, over 200 Virgin Orbit employees, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and other city dignitaries gathered at Ross Aviation within the Long Beach Airport awaiting the touchdown of Cosmic Girl, a 14-year-old 747-400 that used to serve as a commercial carrier, but following substantial modification will now be used as an air launch platform for the company’s LauncherOne rockets.
To the uninformed eye, Cosmic Girl looks like a typical Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet, however it will not be used to transport passengers, it will serve as the first part of the journey to deploying satellites into space.
“Pulling up and seeing Cosmic Girl, as she’s called, just gives you a whole other level of excitement about the future of this company and the future of what all of you are doing at LauncherOne here on this site,” Garcia said.
The LauncherOne is a two-stage, expendable, LOX/RP-1 rocket that will be carried by Cosmic Girl to 35,000 feet of altitude before release for its rocket-powered flight to orbit, according to Virgin Orbit’s website. Using an airplane, instead of the traditional ground-based launch pad, not only offers benefits regarding performance and payload capacity, but also offers flexibility.
Using the modified 747-400 and allowing LauncherOne to operate independently of traditional, and often congested, launch pads, it will be able to operate through or around weather conditions that would otherwise delay a traditional launch. LauncherOne will deploy customers’ satellites into their desired orbit.
Launches will take place at Mojave Air and Space Port, with the first flight scheduled for the first half of 2018.
“This is a huge day and congratulations to who touched this aircraft or put thought into it,” Hart said. “It takes a village to build a mobile launch platform.”
The Virgin Orbit team has been working for less than a year and a half to modify Cosmic Girl. The 747-400 was chosen to be transformed into a satellite launch platform because of its maintenance history, countless missions flying X45 (a Boeing unmanned combat air vehicle), as well as “all sorts of telescopes,” said Hart.
“For the last 16 months our team has focused down and done an incredible job, with a broad team of experts and industry partners to make this modification, to get the engineering done, the detailed design, the analysis, solving every problem you can imagine along the way, getting manufacturing done and delivering her,” Hart said. “It’s been a monumental activity.”
“As mayor, we’re obviously always grateful to have these incredible companies be a part of the city, but what you’re doing and what Virgin Orbit is doing is really all about innovation and the future and space and all these exciting things that I know get us up every single day,” Garcia said.