Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 – nicknamed ‘Cosmic Girl’ – launched from the English town of Newquay, Cornwall, 245 miles west of London on Monday in a first launch for the country from British soil.
The modified Boeing 747 will fly at approximately 35,000 feet before releasing a rocket strapped under its wing.
The rocket will travel between 310 and 745 miles (499 and 1,199 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface and then launch nine satellites into low Earth orbit.
The launch marks a first for Virgin Orbit – a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group – of Western European commercial satellites, and the first Virgin Orbit launch outside the United States.
Since January 2021, the American company has carried out four successful launches from the Mojave Desert in California.
Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic girl” is scheduled to return to base approximately between 7 p.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET on Monday.
Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, described the UK mission as a “historic undertaking”.
“This launch represents the start of a new era in the UK space industry and new partnerships between industry, government and allies,” he said in a statement released on Friday.
The satellites belong to seven customers, including private companies and government agencies. Among other things, they will be used to prevent illegal trafficking, smuggling and terrorism, the company said in Friday’s press release, as well as to reduce the environmental impact of production.
The mission, named “Start Me Up” after the 1981 Rolling Stones song, is a joint venture between Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency, Cornwall local government and the UK’s Royal Air Force.
The launch marks a key milestone in the UK’s growing commercial satellite industry.
The country has been working on commercial spaceports for several years in an effort to capture a bigger share of the rapidly growing global space market, which Morgan Stanley predicts could be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040.
The country’s £16.5bn ($20bn) space industry directly supported around 47,000 jobs between 2019 and 2020, according to the latest available government figures.
Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said on Friday the launch marked a “new era” for the UK space industry, “putting [it] firmly on the map as Europe’s premier destination for the commercial launch of small satellites.
“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalyzing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the UK,” he added.
— Hanna Ziady contributed reporting.