You may know Virgin Galactic for its promises to send tourists to low Earth orbit. But the space-focused division of Richard Branson's company has also been laying the groundwork for another source of revenue: launching small satellites into space using a rocket called LauncherOne. Today, the company announced that LauncherOne has a new mothership for its flights, a Boeing 747-400 from the Virgin Atlantic stable.
LauncherOne works differently from the rockets used by other companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin. Instead of taking off from solid ground, the satellite launcher is released mid-flight, greatly reducing the amount of fuel necessary to get small payloads into orbit. But up until today, Virgin Galactic's plans for LauncherOne always included it being taken to those high altitudes by WhiteKnightTwo, the massive plane that the company plans to one day use to carry its space tourism ship (SpaceShipTwo) into the stratosphere.
Virgin Galactic is saying the switch to the 747 is because the plane is more suited for both LauncherOne’s payload capacity and its flight frequency, and that using it would free up WhiteKnightTwo to be used exclusively for space missions. But the future of WhiteKnightTwo is a little shaky — the 747 is replacing WhiteKnightTwo just about a year after SpaceShipTwo (released from a WhiteKnightTwo) suffered a catastrophic failure that resulted in the death of a test pilot. The switch could also be a matter of price; the Boeing 747 is likely much cheaper to maintain and operate.
Either way, Virgin does already have at least one significant order on the books for LauncherOne, even though the rocket (and its factory) is still being built. Earlier this year, Branson announced a deal with OneWeb, one of a number of companies (SpaceX included) that is trying to create a space-based internet. The launches of OneWeb's 648 satellites could begin as early as 2017.
Correction: This article previously stated that WhiteKnightTwo suffered a mid-flight failure last year. It was SpaceShipTwo that exploded.