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Exclusive: Launching satellites from 747s will change industry

written by Liam McAneny | September 19, 2022

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 taking off from a test flight in the Mojave Desert (Virgin Orbit)

The president of Virgin Orbit has told the Australian Aviation Podcast that the company’s plan to launch satellites from repurposed 747s will transform the space industry.

Dan Hart said the groundbreaking technology would enable launches to take place from anywhere in the world because it doesn’t require a traditional rocket launch site.

Hart was speaking exclusively to the Australian Aviation Podcast from his office in Los Angeles for an episode to be released later this week.

Virgin Orbit is the successor to a project begun by Virgin Galactic, which will use modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft to launch satellites into space from the air.

Hart said that the technology is a “very attractive way for countries to achieve space launch without having to rebuild Cape Canaveral on their shores.”


The company is set to carry out its fifth launch aircraft from Spaceport Cornwall in the United Kingdom imminently, which will be the company’s first launch outside the United States.

The business has successfully carried out four launches of the plane-mounted rocket since its first launch in January 2021.

The latest “blast off” in July saw the 747, named Cosmic Girl, and its two-stage orbital launch vehicle “LauncherOne” take-off from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

It was carrying payloads for the US Space Force, Langley Research Center and Canada’s Department of National Defence, among others.

One of the biggest drawcards of the unusual system is the ability to launch from different locations around the world, said Hart.

“With our technology, we can take an airport, and overnight an airport can become a spaceport.”

Virgin Orbit’s goal is to enable spacecraft to be launched from different locations around the world without the need for expensive and environmentally damaging infrastructure.

While the goal is seemingly straightforward, the technology required to facilitate it is far more complex.

Hart explained that the team had to heavily modify a 747-400 aircraft to carry the LauncherOne rocket under its wing.

Conveniently, the aircraft already had the ability to carry a fifth engine, which simplified the development process.

The 747-400 was chosen due to being, as Hart described, an “incredibly versatile aircraft”.

Hart outlined the difficulty of developing both the rocket engine and the modified 747, which would serve as the launch platform, with the team working on both platforms simultaneously.

To successfully launch the rocket, the aircraft climbs to an altitude of between 30,000 and 35,000 feet before the pilots initiate a steep climb to ensure the correct launch angle. The rocket is then released from the plane and glides for several seconds before initiating its main engine burn.

The rocket is a two-stage rocket, with the second stage taking over for another burn that propels the rocket “to the other side of the world” in the words of Hart, before stabilising its orbit and deploying the satellites that make up its payload to a low-Earth orbit.

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