Virgin Orbit readies modified 747 for the first-ever UK orbital space launch

A modified Boeing 747 aircraft, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, will launch a rocket from under its wing around midnight local time.
Chris Young
A previous Virgin Orbit launch.
A previous Virgin Orbit launch.

Virgin Orbit / Twitter 

As SpaceX works towards the first orbital launch of its fully reusable Starship rocket, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit is looking to perform the first-ever orbital launch from British soil.

The company, an offshoot of Virgin Galactic, will use a repurposed 747 jumbo jet tonight, Jan. 9, to launch nine satellites into orbit. The launch is set to take place just before midnight GMT from Newquay Airport in Cornwall in the south of England, as per the BBC.

If all goes to plan, the Virgin Orbit launch will kickstart an exciting year for the British space industry.

Virgin Orbit's first UK 'Cosmic Girl' launch

Virgin Orbit converted a Boeing 747 aircraft to carry a rocket called LauncherOne underneath its left wing. The converted airliner will fly west from Cornwall over the Atlantic before preparing for launch. Once it is at an altitude of approximately 35,000ft, it will release the rocket, which will ignite its first-stage engine and start climbing toward orbit.

The 747, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, has a mostly stripped-out interior so as to reduce weight due to the heavy load it carries. While the cockpit is exactly the same as that of any 747 airliner — aside from a red rocket launch button — the upper deck does house consoles designed for two flight engineers to monitor the launch.

Virgin Orbit readies modified 747 for the first-ever UK orbital space launch
Cosmic Girl releases its rocket once it reaches an adequate altitude.

Though it was founded by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit is, in fact, based in Long Beach, California. The company has carried out four successful rocket launches to date, all of them taking place over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

An exciting time for the British space industry

Virgin Orbit's launch method means it can technically deploy from anywhere with a runway that can accommodate a 747. Now, it will carry out the first orbital launch from British soil. The launch, part of a mission called 'Start Me Up' will send nine small satellites into an orbit roughly 500 km above Earth. These have several applications, including ocean monitoring and navigation.

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Today's launch is just the beginning for the British space industry. Other companies, including Orbex and Skyrora, are aiming to launch rockets this year from the north of Scotland. While Orbex will employ a more traditional rocket launch method than Virgin Orbit, it aims to break new ground by launching the world's most sustainable rocket to date, using biofuel.

Why launch a rocket aboard a Boeing 747?

Virgin Orbit's launch method allows it for greater flexibility and response time for time-sensitive space missions. The company highlights the fact that it can technically launch a rocket from anywhere in the world, as long as it has a runway that can deal with a 747.

So, while rockets will carry payloads into orbit much faster from launch, Virgin Orbit argues its method's flexibility means it can be deployed faster from the planning stage, and it can also be deployed from almost anywhere. Tune into the launch live stream later today (GMT) via the embedded video below from Virgin Orbit's YouTube channel.