L-3 has started wing modification work on Virgin Galactic’s decommissioned Boeing 747-400, “Cosmic Girl,” the mothership for the company’s LauncherOne small satellite launch service.
The modifications involve strengthening the aircraft’s left inboard wing to carry the 55,000-lb. rocket in a horizontal position. The launcher will be air-dropped from 35,000-45,000 ft. to carry payloads as heavy as 200 kg (441 lb.) into high-altitude polar orbits. VirginGalactic in June 2015 signed a contract with nascent space Internet provider OneWeb for 39 launches with options for an additional 100.
Virgin Atlantic retired Cosmic Girl in late October and flew it to San Antonio for aerodynamic and structural testing and a heavy maintenance check before being moved to L-3’s Platform Integration facilities in Waco, Texas. L-3’s previous work with 747s includes modifications to NASA’s Sofia airborne telescope platform.
Additional modifications to the aircraft include installation of a removable payload adaptor that connects the launch vehicle to the left wing. The adaptor will connect to the inboard lower wing surface at a strengthened section originally designed into the 747 to be able to carry spare engines. The aft “canoe” flap fairing on the inboard trailing edge flap also will be reduced in size to ensure adequate clearance from the rocket.
Captive-carry, separation and initial launch tests are planned to take place from the Virgin Galactic’s Mojave, California, facilities in 2017.