Virgin Orbit plane

Virgin Orbit prepares to launch UK’s first rocket into space

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

The jumbo jet that will launch the UK's first rocket into space has arrived at Cornwall's Newquay airport.

Virgin Orbit's jumbo, known as Cosmic Girl, landed at Newquay Airport in Cornwall just before 18:30 BST yesterday (Tuesday October 11).

The jumbo jet is a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 passenger plane which has been converted to carry a rocket, called LauncherOne, to an altitude of approximately 35,000ft (10km) and then drop it. 

The aeroplane will be used for the first-ever satellite launch from the UK; specifically, Spaceport Cornwall, which is based at the airport, early next month. Once released into the atmosphere, the LauncherOne rocket will accelerate to 8,000mph before deploying seven satellites into orbit.

"It feels amazing to be here now. It feels amazing to be home, amazing to bring Cosmic Girl in here. And we're weeks away now from the first launch from the UK. So, it's very real. I'm really excited," squadron leader Mathew ‘Stanny’ Stannard told BBC News.

To date, Cosmic Girl has carried more than 2.5 million passengers on almost 8,300 flights.

The LauncherOne rocket

The LauncherOne rocket / Virgin Orbit

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said the aircraft's arrival had followed eight years of hard work.

"A converted 747 using a converted airport to get to space is a perfect example of what we are working to achieve at Spaceport Cornwall," she said. "By making use of existing assets, we want to set the bar for responsible launch, with 'space for good' at its core."

The ‘Start Me Up’ mission - named after the 1981 Rolling Stones song - is seen as a giant leap for the rapidly growing UK space industry. Most of the satellites have been built in Britain and are being loaded into the rocket this week in a super-clean hanger at the spaceport.

The satellites include a prototype orbiting factory for making high-value alloys and semiconductors, constructed on a Welsh business park by Space Forge, and the IOD-3 Amber, designed by Horizon Technologies, which will form part of a constellation of satellites monitoring illegal fishing, smuggling, trafficking, piracy and terrorism.

"This launch from UK soil marks the start of the next great stage in the UK's space story, unlocking commercial access to space from our own back gardens," said Lucy Edge, chief operations officer at Satellite Applications Catapult. 

The specific date of the launch is still uncertain, as permission must come from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and it has yet to issue the necessary licences.

However, the CAA is expected to give the green light for the launch in the coming days.

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