Virgin Orbit, one of the Virgin family of space-focused companies that includes Virgin Galactic, is looking to flight its modified 747-400 aircraft for the first time in 2018 (via SpaceNews). Virgin Orbit has reconfigured the aircraft, dubbed 'Cosmic Girl,' with a mount point for its LauncherOne expendable two-stage rocket, letting that spacefaring craft launch mid-flight from the airborne jumbo jet.
The plan for Cosmic Girl is ultimately to have it fly to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where LauncherOne will release and then make the rest of the trip to orbit, which begins at around 525,000 feet above the Earth's surface.
Virgin Orbit wants to make this a viable option for launching orbital cargo because it's very flexible, can work around weather systems and offers advantages in terms of cost to launch for payloads of up to 661 lbs, which covers a range of different types of satellites. The small satellite market is growing quickly, and Virgin Orbit wants to be able to offer a launch option that's both accommodating and affordable (starting at an estimated $12 million, vs. around $60 million for a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch)for the growing number of smallsat operators and startups.
Originally, Virgin Galactic planned to use LauncherOne with its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which shuttles SpaceShipTwo to high altitude, but in 2015 it changed tack and picked up the 747 for modification. Virgin Orbit also subsequently spun out from Virgin Galactic earlier this year as its own company focused entirely on smallsat launch services.
Virgin Orbit plans to start its test flight of Cosmic Girl starting in the first half of 2018, the company says, and will run its inaugural test from California's Mojave Air and Space Port.