The modified 737 “Cosmic Girl” aircraft takes off from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California carrying a LauncherOne rocket on June 30, 2021.
Virgin Orbit is assembling a fleet of 747 modified jets, the company announced on Tuesday, ordering two new modified cargo cells to help launch more rockets into space.
The company is acquiring the two additional airframes through L3Harris, which will modify the jets to carry and launch the Virgin Orbit rockets. Virgin plans to take delivery of the first of the planes next year.
Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the delivery schedule for the second plane will be “more determined by market demand” for launches. The deal “liberates us in many ways”, he said. “It removes one of the major bottlenecks that we have in the system,” Hart told CNBC.
It will also help the company continue launches in case one of its planes is down for maintenance, which will open up “all sorts of possibilities to support different customers in different locations,” he added.
Virgin Orbit has only one aircraft, a custom Boeing 747-400 called “Cosmic Girl”, which has flown four Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket missions to date. Using a method known as air-launch, the company’s aircraft lifts its rockets to around 45,000 feet and drops them just before they ignite their engines and accelerate into space. – a method that the company presents as more flexible than ground systems.
Hart declined to elaborate on financial details of the deal with L3Harris, but noted that the initial cost of a 747 airframe is in the “single-digit millions.”
Virgin Orbit’s new 747s will also feature an improved layout, with L3Harris modifying the aircraft to carry up to two LauncherOne rockets, along with all of the company’s ground support equipment, to a launch site.
“The ability to deploy two rockets and all the equipment on the ground in an airplane, fly somewhere, set it up, and all of a sudden you have a launch pad somewhere is pretty unique,” said Hart. “It adds a certain level of unpredictability for the national security community. [and] it’s a better economy for the spaceports.”
Virgin Orbit went public via a SPAC in December. Shares of the company have fallen about 44% since their debut at Monday’s close at $4.51 per share.
First UK launch coming soon
Virgin Orbit’s modified 747 jet “Cosmic Girl” releases the company’s LauncherOne rocket for a mission on January 13, 2022.
Virgin Orbit’s next scheduled mission is for the Pentagon. It will carry seven government satellites, scheduled for June 29 at the earliest.
Next, the company plans to fly its first international mission, from Cornwall in the UK. To prepare for the mission, which is scheduled for the third quarter of the year, Hart said the company will do a full dress rehearsal of the Cornwall rocket at the company’s current base of operations at Mojave Air and Space Port. in California, before flying. Cosmic Girl and ships her gear to the UK
Adding additional aircraft gives Virgin Orbit key flexibility to meet international demand. Outside of the US, the company currently has launch agreements with the UK, Japan and Brazil, as well as memorandums of understanding with Poland and Oman.
“We also have discussions with half a dozen other countries,” Hart said.
Virgin Orbit is also considering governments owning the 747 planes themselves, with the company providing launch services for countries. “It’s the best economy because the logistical tail is pretty straightforward, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Hart said.