Virgin Galactic has a new mothership for its small satellite launch service. "Cosmic Girl" is a 747- 400 commercial jet aircraft that once served with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Airlines and has now been seconded to act as the an aerial platform for sending small payloads into orbit using the LauncherOne orbital vehicle.

This not the first time that a 747 has been chosen for space work. The aircraft have previously been used for carrying Space Shuttles between Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral, as a mothership for the first flight tests of the Enterprise Space Shuttle atmospheric prototype and the X-45 Phantom Ray, and as a test bed for Pratt and Whitney engines.

For LauncherOne, the rocket will be carried under the port wing in the "fifth engine" position used to ferry engine nacelles. When the 747 reaches sufficient altitude, it drops LauncherOne, which ignites and carries its payload into space.

Sir Richard and a model of Cosmic Girl(Credit: Virgin Galactic)

In September, Virgin Galactic announced improvements to the LauncherOne vehicle that include longer fuel tanks and the NewtonThree rocket engine burning a combination of RP-1 fuel and liquid oxygen to develop a thrust of 58,000 to 75,000 lbf.

Virgin Galactic says that Cosmic Girl, combined with the improved LauncherOne, will allow the company to send a 200 kg (440 lb) payload into a Sun-Synchronous Orbit at a cost of under US$10 million. In addition, the system can handle payloads of over 400 kg (880 lb) in other orbits. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft will continue work as the mothership for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital passenger ship.

Cosmic Girl has completed its initial inspections and tests, and will undergo a scheduled maintenance check by VT San Antonio Aerospace before wing modifications get underway.

"The Boeing 747 has a very special place in my heart," says Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard. "We began service on my first airline, Virgin Atlantic, with just one leased 747. I never imagined that today one of our 747s would get a second chance and help open access to space. I'm absolutely thrilled that Cosmic Girl can stay in the Virgin family – and truly live up to her name!"

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