Virgin Orbit is using a rocket slung under the wing of a specially converted, retired passenger Boeing 747-400 N744VG jumbo jet called ‘Cosmic Girl’ to send satellites to space. The launch will be the UK’s first space mission.
The 670ft rocket is called LauncherOne and will carry more than 25,000kg of payload into space. Over the coming days, it will be loaded with eight small satellites, including six from the UK and two from Oman and Poland, and launched into space. The project, dubbed “start me up,” will have significant advantages compared to vertical rocket launches due to variable launch sites depending on the satellite’s eventual orbit.
Cosmic Girl landed at Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, UK, on 11th October 2022, and according to UK Aviation News, was specifically chosen by Virgin’s Atlantic Fleet after having spent years as G-VWOW flying holidaymakers across the Atlantic. The launch date has yet to be finalised. However, it is believed that it could take place as early as November.
Squadron Leader Matthew Stannard, Virgin Orbit’s chief pilot, said, “We’re your Uber. We’ll get you to exactly where you want to go. “
Stannard, a serving Royal Air Force fast jet pilot, told Reuters, “Take the hurricane that just happened in Florida; NASA suddenly comes out and says we want better tracking of those kinds of things. Therefore I need a satellite that is going to circle or look at a place on earth when I need it. I don’t want it in two years or a year, people want it now, and that is where something like Airlaunch will come in and be able to serve that market very well.”
“We take it out to the drop site, and then we do, for an aeroplane, a quite a dynamic manoeuvre where we pitch it up to a steep attitude to give the rocket less work when it comes off. The rocket drops off the aeroplane, we bank away, and off the rocket goes to space,” Stannard said.
The aircraft made its ‘space launch’ debut on May 25, 2020, over the Mojave desert in the USA. However, Launcher One failed to reach space after its release from Cosmic Girl over the Pacific Ocean. On January 17, 2021, the second launch successfully delivered 10 shoebox size CubeSats to low Earth orbit.
In an interview in 2015, Richard Branson said, “we never even thought of satellites when we thought of Virgin Galactic originally. 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.”
Sources: Associated Press, Reuters.