Virgin Orbit is assembling a fleet of 747 jets to launch more rockets

The modified 737 “Cosmic Girl” aircraft takes off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California carrying a LauncherOne rocket on June 30, 2021.

Virgin orbit

Virgin orbit is assembling a fleet of modified 747 jets, the company announced Tuesday, ordering two new modified cargo cells to help launch more rockets into space.

The company is acquiring the two additional cells L3 Harris, which will modify the jets to carry and launch Virgin Orbit’s rockets. Virgin plans to take delivery of the first of the planes next year.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said delivery times for the second aircraft will be “driven more by market demand” for launches. The deal “freed us in some ways,” he said. “It eliminates one of the key bottlenecks we have in the system,” Hart told CNBC.

It will also help the company continue launches in case one of their aircraft is undergoing maintenance, which will open up “all sorts of possibilities to support different customers in different locations,” he added.

Virgin Orbit has a single, customized aircraft Boeing 747-400 named “Cosmic Girl”, who has flown four missions of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket to date. Through a method known as air launch, the company’s aircraft transports its rockets to approximately 45,000 feet in altitude and drops them just before they ignite their engines and accelerate into space, a method the company believes is more flexible than aero systems. earth.

Hart declined to specify the financial details of the deal with L3Harris, but noted that the initial cost of a 747 cell is “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, as well as all of the company’s ground support equipment, to a launch site.

“The ability to deploy two rockets and all the ground equipment in an airplane, fly somewhere, set it up and suddenly you have a launch base somewhere is pretty unique,” ​​Hart said. “It adds a certain level of unpredictability to the national security community [and] it’s a better economy for spaceports. “

Virgin Orbit went public via SPAC in December. Shares of the company are down roughly 44% since its debut closing Monday 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

Virgin Orbit’s next scheduled mission is for the Pentagon. It will carry seven government satellites, expected no earlier than June 29.

Subsequently, the company plans to carry out its first international mission, launching from Cornwall to the United Kingdom. To prepare for that mission, which is scheduled for the third quarter of the year, Hart said the company will do a full costumed test of the Cornwall rocket at the company’s current base of operations in Mojave Air and Space Port, California, before. of flying Cosmic Girl and shipping her gear to the UK

Adding more 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 memoranda of understanding with Poland and Oman.

“We are also in discussions with half a dozen other countries,” Hart said.

Virgin Orbit is also looking into governments that own the same 747 aircraft, with the company providing launch services for the countries. “This is the best economy because the logistic queue is pretty straightforward, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Hart said.