Virgin Orbit is buying 2 more rocket-launching planes

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket blasts its way toward space after separating from its carrier plane during the Launch Demo 2 mission on Jan. 17, 2021.
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket blasts its way toward space after separating from its carrier plane during the Launch Demo 2 mission on Jan. 17, 2021. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit is buying two more planes that will help get satellites to the final frontier.

The company, part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, delivers small satellites to orbit using a rocket called LauncherOne. The rocket leaves Earth tucked beneath the wing of a carrier airplane, which drops it at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,700 meters). This air-launch strategy increases flexibility and responsiveness, Virgin Orbit representatives say.

Virgin Orbit has four launches under its belt to date — an unsuccessful test flight in May 2020 and three successful commercial missions thereafter, which launched in January 2021, June 2021 and January of this year. All four of those flights employed Cosmic Girl, the company's modified Boeing 747 jet.

In photos: Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions

Cosmic Girl is Virgin Orbit's only carrier plane, but it won't be for long. Virgin Orbit announced Tuesday (May 10) that it's acquiring two more Boeing 747s in partnership with L3Harris Technologies, the aerospace and defense company that outfitted Cosmic Girl for its current role.

"L3Harris will modify one of the newly acquired aircrafts to serve as an additional airborne launch pad for Virgin Orbit’s small satellite launch service, with delivery expected in 2023," Virgin Orbit representatives wrote in a statement on Tuesday. 

"L3Harris will also overhaul the platform with a new cargo configuration, which is expected to allow Virgin Orbit to deliver its rockets and ground support equipment in the same aircraft that will launch from foreign spaceports," they added.

The statement did not specify when the second of the newly acquired planes — which will presumably also carry rockets up for air launch — will be delivered.

And speaking of foreign spaceports: Virgin Orbit is gearing up to launch from one in the near future. Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne will loft, among other payloads, test satellites for the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), on a mission that will originate from Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England.

That flight, which is targeted for this summer, will be the first orbital launch to originate from the U.K., as well as the first commercial rocket launch ever from Western Europe, NRO officials have said.

All four of Virgin Orbit's launches to date have lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. But, as the above plans indicate, Virgin Orbit aims to extend its operations to various points around the globe.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.