Virgin Orbit rocket launching plane
Virgin Orbit will launch its rocket launching aircraft in 2018 - Representational Image REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Virgin group's new space-focused company, the Virgin Orbit, is gearing up to test a modified Boeing 747 as an aerial rocket launching platform in 2018.

The 747-400 carrier aircraft, known as Cosmic Girl, landed yesterday at the Long Beach airport near Virgin Orbit's headquarters, after 16-months of interior inspection and modification at an L3 Technologies facility in Texas. The weight of the craft, which once flew passengers for Virgin Airlines, has been reduced by over 65,000 pounds and additional electrical systems have also been added to support a mount point (called pylon) for mid-air launching.

"In the last 16 months, our team has focused down and in, and done an incredible job with a broad team of experts and industry partners, to make this modification," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told Space News after Cosmic Girl landed in Long Beach. "It's been a huge, monumental activity."

Virgin plans to launch one of its LauncherOne rockets from an altitude of 35,000ft using the newly modified 747. The aerospace company will outfit the aircraft with external equipment in Long Beach, and will also add electric and pneumatic systems connecting the pylon and LauncherOne to the aircraft. The small rocket can deposit up to 880 lbs of payload into low-Earth orbit.

Despite being unorthodox, Virgin Orbit's unique launch approach comes with a number of advantages for space-faring companies. Unlike current launch pads that are susceptible to the whims of poor weather, an aerial launch platform can work around weather systems as it ascends. Plus, it could also serve as an affordable option (starting at $12m) for young smallsat operators and start-ups.

Though Virgin Orbit hasn't announced a specific launch date, company representatives say Cosmic Girl has been certified by FAA and is ready to be tested over a four-month schedule. This will include a bunch of tests, which will prepare the craft for a full-fledged aerial launch in the first half of 2018.

Paul Allen's Stratolaunch Systems also built a massive aircraft for the same purpose, but the company is slightly behind Virgin in terms of launch schedule.