Stratolaunch Buys Virgin Orbit's Rocket-Launching 747

With Virgin Orbit going through bankruptcy, other launch providers are purchasing various parts of the business. This week we learned that Stratolaunch’s bid to buy Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft has been approved by the U.S Bankruptcy Court, enabling Stratolaunch to use the 747 to carry its Talon-A hypersonic vehicles, ideally beginning operation by 2024.

A conceptual design of the Talon-A hypersonic vehicle. Credit: Stratolaunch.

The Talon-A is an autonomous, reusable hypersonic aircraft that is being developed to fly at high Mach speeds across a range of altitudes and flight profiles. Stratolaunch also recently announced the aircraft had a successful separation test on May 13, 2023 and the company hopes to fly its first hypersonic test flight later this summer.

A hypersonic vehicle is capable of traveling at least 4 times faster than the speed-of-sound, or greater than Mach 4. Hypersonic vehicles have various uses and can either be an airplane, missile, or spacecraft. There are many who feel the United States lags behind the hypersonic capabilities of Russia and China, which have both announced in the past few years that they have developed and fielded hypersonic missiles. However, U.S.-based commercial companies like Stratolaunch and Hermeus hope to change the field.

As soon as the deal for Virgin Orbit’s 747 is closed – expected by the end of July this year – Stratolaunch said they would immediately repurpose it for the Talon-A reusable hypersonic test.  Stratolaunch said this acquisition will allow them to increase its in-flight test capacity and ability to support government and commercial customers globally. The company currently uses their own “Roc” air launch platform.

Stratolaunch successfully releases the Talon-0 (TA-0) separation test vehicle from its Roc air launch platform on May 13, 2023. Credit: Stratolaunch / Ethan Wagner

“The addition of this aircraft is a transformational milestone,” said Dr. Zachary Krevor, President and CEO of Stratolaunch, in a press release. “With Roc remaining as our mainstay aircraft, an additional 747 brings expanded capabilities and flexibility to our platform. We will be able to increase both our flight test capacity and reach to become an even stronger partner to global customers.”

The Talon-A test flight lasted 4 hours and 8 minutes and demonstrated the launch system can “cleanly and safely separate hypersonic vehicles from Roc’s center-wing pylon.” The test also confirmed telemetry between the vehicles and Vandenberg Space Force Base’s communication assets.

“The need for hypersonic testing has never been greater and we are committed to fulfilling this national imperative,” Krevor said. “We are making tremendous strides as we continue to enable the future of hypersonic testing. With the recent successful Talon-A separation test, we are excited to prepare for our first hypersonic flight of the TA-1 testbed.”