Virgin Galactic – part of the Virgin corporation headed by Sir Richard Branson – has unveiled their new LauncherOne system’s dedicated aircraft at the company’s facility in San Antonio, Texas. The aircraft, a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 series passenger carrier, is slated to begin service to Virgin Galactic in late 2017 with the first of three test flights.
Dedicated plane for LauncherOne:
Virgin Galactic’s new LauncherOne system, an air-launch rocket created specifically to deliver small satellites into orbit, was publicly announced in 2012 following nearly four years of development work.
A two-stage vehicle, LauncherOne was initially unveiled to the public with the understanding that Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo spacecraft would ferry the air-launch rocket to altitude for all missions.
WhiteKnightTwo, a jet-powered cargo aircraft, is currently used by Virgin Galactic for testing of the company’s under-development SpaceShipTwo suborbital commercial spacecraft for paying passengers.
During the 2012 unveiling of LauncherOne, Virgin Galactic stated that WhiteKnightTwo would be the sole vehicle used to ferry the LauncherOne rocket to altitude for release.
However, that plan quickly shifted away from the use of WhiteKnightTwo because the interest and initial mission contracts were so much that it would have strained WhiteKnightTwo’s ability to adequately perform both SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne missions.
Thus, as reported in September 2015 by NASASpaceflight.com, Virgin Galactic was in the final phases of procuring a dedicated aircraft for LauncherOne.
“Demand has become so significant that LauncherOne will have its own dedicated aircraft,” noted Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides.
At the time, Virgin Galactic stated that acquisition of a dedicated aircraft for LauncherOne would free up WhiteKnightTwo to focus solely on SpaceShipTwo launches and therefore increase the efficiency of both SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne.
Moreover, at an unveiling ceremony yesterday, Virgin Galactic Vice President of Special Projects, William Pomerantz, noted that the market wanted a bigger launch capability than the WhiteKnightTwo LauncherOne system could provide, which was another prime factor in the switch to a dedicated 747 aircraft launch system.
The aircraft: Cosmic Girl takes on a new role
At Virgin Galactic’s San Antonio facility yesterday, the company revealed that they acquired this dedicated aircraft from Virgin Atlantic Airways in November.
The aircraft was, coincidentally, named Cosmic Girl – though that’s not why she was selected.
Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 (747-41R) series aircraft under then-registration number G-VWOW, was chosen because of her impressively clean operational history and excellent maintenance record.
The aircraft undertook its first flight on 29 September 2001 and was delivered to Virgin Atlantic Airways on 31 October 2001.
Cosmic Girl – as she was named at the time of her delivery – spent 14 years in service with Virgin Atlantic Airways primarily servicing the company’s London to San Francisco via New York City route until 29 October 2015.
At this point, Cosmic Girl was withdrawn from service for Virgin Atlantic and flown from London Gatwick airport in the United Kingdom to San Antonio, Texas, in the United States.
The plane was officially delivered to Virgin Galactic on 12 November 2015 and re-registered as N744VG.
Now at Virgin Galactic’s San Antonio facility, the company has completed a series of laser scans of the left side of the aircraft to acquire precise readings of the portion of the plane that will have to be modified to support the 24,947.58 kg (55,000 lb) LauncherOne rocket and its associated hardware.
With those scans complete, Cosmic Girl will now undergo what is known as Maintenance D checks, which are the most comprehensive and thorough checks an aircraft undergoes.
Maintenance D checks more or less completely strip an aircraft for a complete nose to tail, wing to wing inspection and overhaul.
During maintenance D checks, it is also not uncommon for all of the paint to be removed from the exterior of the aircraft so a complete fuselage metal skin check can be performed to look for and identify any signs of stress.
Maintenance D checks usually require approximately 50,000 hours of hands-on work and last upward of two months.
For Cosmic Girl, these checks are slated to be completed sometime in January 2016.
After the maintenance D checks are complete, Cosmic Girl will be flown to a still-under-negotiation reconfiguration site, where she will be modified to carry LauncherOne under her left wing.
This reconfiguration is expected to take place primarily in 2016, after which Cosmic Girl will be flown to Virgin Galactic’s California-based flight facility in the Mojave desert.
At this point, a series of three test flights will take place in 2017 – with the aim of launching the first LauncherOne mission by the end of 2017.
Benefits of a dedicated aircraft:
At the unveiling ceremony yesterday, Virgin Galactic executives – including Sir Richard Branson – discussed the greatest benefit of the switch to Cosmic Girl over WhiteKnightTwo: increased payload-to-orbit capability without an increase in cost to customers.
Prior to the switch, it was understood that LauncherOne on WhiteKnightTwo would be capable of carrying payloads between 100 – 300 kgs (220.5 – 661.3 lbs) to polar/sun-synchronous or equatorial orbits, respectively, for roughly $10 million (USD).
However, the switch to a 747-400 aircraft launch system allowed Virgin Galactic to modify the LauncherOne rocket to considerably increase the system’s performance.
With Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne will be capable of placing a 300 kg (661.3 lb) payload into a sun-synchronous orbit and a 450 kg (992.08 lb) payload into an equatorial orbit – all for the same rough price of $10 million (USD).
Moreover, the switch to Cosmic Girl means that LauncherOne will enjoy the ability to launch polar and sun-synchronous missions from approximately 80.4 km (50 miles) off the west coast of Los Angeles, California, and a similar distance off the east coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, for equatorial missions.
From its take-off runway, Cosmic Girl – with two pilots and at least one launch control operator on board – will be able to reach its in-air launch zone – “drop zone” – within 30 minutes of take off.
Once released from under the left side of Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne will perform an initial 15-minute series of burns before coasting 45 minutes to the other side of Earth, after which another burn will place its payload into its intended orbit.
In this way, “The market has spoken, and we have listened: we have roughly doubled the payload for our customers without increasing the price,” noted Mr. Whitesides.
“LauncherOne will be ready to meet the rapidly expanding needs of satellite startups, space agencies, and research institutions thanks to the investments we’ve already made in our engines, tanks, avionics, and our production infrastructure.”
(Images Virgin Galactic and Nate Moeller for NASASpaceFlight.com and astro95media.com – full photo album in L2.)
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