July 28, 2021

Virgin Hopes To Launch Satellites From A Boeing 747 Next Week

Virgin Orbit has officially set a date for its ‘Tubular Bells’ mission. The Boeing 747-400 packed with seven satellites from three countries will take off on June 30th or in the early days of July, if all goes well. The launch will take place from Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert.

Virgin Orbit uses a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 for its space missions. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Tubular Bells

In exciting news today, the Richard Branson-backed Virgin Orbit has announced plans for its first Tubular Bells missions. The launch comes after two planned demonstration flights, one unsuccessful in May 2020 and a successful one in January 2021, paving the way for this first formal flight.

Onboard this aircraft are seven satellites, destined for commercial and military missions. Three are CubeSat satellites are for the US Department of Defense Space Test Program. Three are for a private Polish firm, SatRevolution, which is launching its first optical satellites as part of its 14-satellite constellation. The final satellite is a CubeSat for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, its first for military purposes.

Virgin-Orbit-Demo-Launch-two
The aircraft comes equipped with ‘Launcher One,’ which contains the satellites. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Virgin uses the CubeSat technology for its missions, which are miniaturized satellites that are only 10cm³ and weigh up to 1.3 kilograms. This means they can easily fit in the underwing ‘Launcher One’ on the specially retrofitted 747.

Virgin Orbit CubeSat
Several CubeSat’s can be carried on the 747 for lower earth orbital missions. Photo: Virgin Orbit

Cosmic Girl

In recent weeks, the special 747-400 (aptly nicknamed ‘Cosmic Girl’) has been undergoing a series of tests. This includes high altitude flight-like pressure tests filled with cryogenic propellants. This is meant to simulate the flights the aircraft will undertake very soon and one that will hopefully go as smoothly as the previous demonstration.

Virgin Orbit Boeing 747-400
The 747 has been undergoing a series of tests to prepare for its first formal Tubular Bells flights. Photo: Virgin Orbit

As we draw closer to the launch, Virgin Orbit will confirm the final date. This will likely depend on flight preparedness, weather conditions, and thousands of other technical factors. Keep an eye out for the final announcement in the next few days.

Special

The aircraft carrying out the first launch flights is Boeing 747-400 registered N744VG and belongs to Virgin Galactic. However, Cosmic Girl began her life as passenger aircraft for Virgin Atlantic in October 2001, registration G-VWOW. After carrying up to 386 passengers for over 14 years, the aircraft was sold to Virgin Galactic to serve as a launchpad for space missions.

Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 G-VWOW
The passenger 747 has been reconfigured with space for satellite launchers and will likely remain in the fleet for years to come. Photo: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

As Virgin Orbit draws closer to regular orbital deployment flights, expect to see the excitement around the industry grow. Hopefully, in the near future, space travel will become a common phenomenon for average passengers too.

What do you think about Virgin Orbit’s upcoming flight? Let us know in the comments!