Richard Branson unveils his rocket’s new “mothership,” a 747 he calls “Cosmic Girl.”

Richard Branson unveils his rocket’s new “mothership,” a 747 he calls “Cosmic Girl.”

SAN ANTONIO–Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is best known for its ambitions to fly tourists to the edge of space. But it has been increasingly focused on another venture: launching small satellites.

The company took another step in that direction Thursday, showing off a new “mothership” aircraft that would help launch its LauncherOne rocket to space. At a hangar at the airport here, Branson showed off the Boeing 747-400 airplane, dubbed “Cosmic Girl,” that would carry LauncherOne into the sky.

Unlike rockets that take off vertically from launch pads, Virgin plans to tether its rocket to the wing of the 747, which would fly to an altitude of about 35,000 feet.

Once aloft, the rocket would drop, fire its engine and shoot off into orbit, where it would deposit satellites.

“I never even thought of satellites when we thought of Virgin Galactic originally,” Branson said in an interview. “I just thought of human space travel and a personal desire to go to space and trying to make dreams come true and so on. And then embarking on that, suddenly you realize there’s another whole aspect to this. Which is equally as exciting, really.”

He said he wants to help deploy legions of small satellites into orbit that would help provide the Internet and communications services to rural parts of the world that aren’t yet connected.

“I spend a lot of time in Africa and poorer parts of the world, and you know if somebody doesn’t have WiFi or a mobile phone or the Internet they are going to be held back from every body else,” he said. “The satellites will make a massive difference here on Earth.”

Virgin already has signed a $4.7 million contract with NASA to launch more than a dozen experimental satellites on a test flight. And it also has a deal with OneWeb, which plans to build a global Internet satellite system, for 39 satellites with an option for 100 more.

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