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Stage set for UK satellite launches after latest Virgin Orbit mission

Professional Engineering

The Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket fires towards orbit after being released by the Cosmic Girl carrier (Credit: Virgin Orbit)
The Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket fires towards orbit after being released by the Cosmic Girl carrier (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

The stage is set for satellites to launch into space from Cornwall following another successful mission by Virgin Orbit.

The company’s LauncherOne rocket deployed seven satellites into orbit yesterday (13 January), after being released by the modified 747 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl over the Pacific Ocean. The launch was the firm’s third successful flight, less than one year after its first mission.

The UK Space Agency, which is working with Virgin to launch satellites from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, welcomed the news. Launches from the site, one of seven potential spaceports around the UK, are set to start this summer.

Space agency deputy CEO Ian Annett said: “Congratulations to Virgin Orbit on another successful mission, which demonstrates the huge potential of innovative air-launch technology to meet the needs of the modern satellite industry. Having an RAF pilot at the controls demonstrates the UK’s commitment to working closely with Virgin Orbit ahead of their first launch from Spaceport Cornwall later this year.

“The UK is home to some of the world’s leading satellite manufacturers, which currently ship their products overseas for launch. We are supporting them by fostering a new domestic launch market, with spaceports and launch operators providing services across the UK and catalysing investment from all over the world.”

Yesterday’s mission was the first time a rocket has reached orbit from the West Coast in the US, with Cosmic Girl taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Flown by RAF flight lieutenant Matthew Stannard, the mission followed a trajectory that would be impossible for a vertical launch rocket – ultimately saving months of orbital adjustments and extra kilograms of fuel for the satellites.

After a smooth release from the aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket ignited and propelled itself towards space, deploying its payload into a target orbit approximately 500km above the Earth’s surface at 45 degrees inclination. 

“We flew through weather and a cloud layer that would have grounded any other launch I’ve worked on in my career, something only made possible by air-launch and our incredible team,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart.

“We can say with confidence that in this new era of regular, frequent, successful missions, we can help our customers and partners use space technology to advance human knowledge and open space for good.”

The satellites included experiments in space-based communications and in-space navigation and propulsion, as well as satellites that will serve the global agricultural sector.

The Adler-1 satellite by Glasgow firm Spire Global was also launched, aimed at gathering data to help tackle the growing issue of space debris. The craft was shipped to California for the launch, demonstrating the potential benefits of a UK launch capability.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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