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Hypersonic rival bids for Virgin Orbit’s 747

written by Adam Thorn | May 22, 2023

Stratolaunch’s Roc stretches over a football field long

The company behind the world’s largest aircraft has bid $17 million for Virgin Orbit’s rocket-launching 747.

According to reports, Stratolaunch is set to pay the bankrupt business in cash immediately for ‘Cosmic Girl’ should the deal be accepted.

While the so-called ‘stalking horse bid’ could be trumped, it effectively locks in a floor price that rival bidders must match or surpass.

Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy protection last month, days after it announced it would cease operations and make around 90 per cent of its workforce redundant. The Richard Branson-founded business uniquely launches rockets “horizontally” under the wing of a repurposed 747 rather than vertically from a launchpad.

It’s a similar launch method employed by bidder Stratolaunch. However, it uses a bespoke-made aircraft called Roc, pictured, which is thought to be the largest plane ever made.


It also fires hypersonic launch vehicles instead of Orbit’s more traditional rockets, allowing clients to test their payloads at extreme speeds.

Just last week, Stratolaunch conducted its first-ever test drop, releasing a prototype hypersonic vehicle above the Pacific Ocean.

The distinctive-looking twin-fuselage Roc aircraft is the brainchild of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and is designed to carry the rocket-powered and automated Talon-A vehicles into the upper atmosphere. Its wingspan incredibly stretches over a football field long, and the aircraft boasts six engines.

Virgin Orbit, meanwhile, saw its business collapse following the failure of its landmark launch in Cornwall, south-west England, failing in January.

Despite its troubles, it emerged earlier this month that up to 30 bidders have emerged to save the company from potential insolvency, paving the way for a future blast-off from Toowoomba in Queensland.

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said multiple parties were interested in buying the company as an “integrated enterprise”, retaining employees and keeping it operational.

“I’m pleased with the number and quality of the indications of interest we’ve received, which we believe reflects the innovative ideas and hard work the team has put into the development of this unique system,” he said.

“I look forward to continuing to work with those who have expressed interest and other parties as we approach the final bid deadline.”

Virgin Orbit’s plan worked because the 747 has a little-known capacity to attach a fifth engine, enabling it to carry a rocket. After the satellites are fitted underneath the rocket’s nose, or fairing, the projectile is attached underneath the left wing of the Jumbo Jet. The aircraft takes off and cruises upwards to its launch position at around 35,000 feet.

“The pilot then pulls up on the 747 to a 30-degree angle because we want the rocket facing the right direction, and we want a bit of upward pitch,” Hart told Australian Aviation.

“The other pilot, at the right moment, pushes a button on the panel of the cockpit to release the rocket, which drops — or glides — for about four or five seconds until it’s safely able to start its engines.”

Seconds afterwards, the 747 banks right to stay clear of the rocket’s path.

Cosmic Girl, now N744VG, enjoyed a 14-year career with Virgin Atlantic as G-VWOW, carrying more than two million passengers, mainly from London to New York.

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