Jumbo jet to launch Virgin Galactic spaceship
A 747 jumbo jet will be adapted for use as a launchpad for a Virgin Galactic spaceship, Sir Richard Branson has announced.
The plane, which was nicknamed Cosmic Girl when it flew under the Virgin Atlantic brand, will be used to carry the firm's Launcher One satellite to high altitude before the craft will blast into space.
The Boeing 747-400 will be modified so the Launcher One can be mounted underneath its left wing, meaning the launcher has an increased maximum payload capacity to 400kg.
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard said: "The Boeing 747 has a very special place in my heart: we began service on my first airline, Virgin Atlantic, with just one leased 747. I never imagined that today one of our 747s would get a second chance and help open access to space.
"I'm absolutely thrilled that Cosmic Girl can stay in the Virgin family - and truly live up to her name."
Launcher One is described by the company as "an affordable dedicated ride to orbit for small satellites" aimed at commercial and government customers, costing under 10 million dollars (£6.6 million).
According to the company's engineers, the 747-400 is an "ideal" launchpad because of its rocket carrying capacity, long range and all-weather capability, while it can also take off from most commercial airports.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides added: " Air launch enables us to provide rapid, responsive service to our satellite customers on a schedule set by their business and operational needs, rather than the constraints of national launch ranges.
"Selecting the 747 airframe provides a dedicated platform that gives us the capacity to substantially increase our payload to orbit without increasing our prices."
The plane will not be used to launch passenger flights on Space Ship Two, which has its own dedicated carrier called White Knight Two. So far 700 men and women from more than 50 countries have reserved places to fly on the spacecraft, according to the company.
The latest announcement comes after Sir Richard earlier insisted his space programme was "back on track" following the end of an investigation in to last year's fatal Virgin Galactic crash.
The spaceship broke apart over the Mojave desert during a test flight in October, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Body found the crash was caused by a catastrophic structural failure triggered when the co-pilot unlocked the craft's braking system early.