A modified Virgin 747 jumbo jet will soon take off across the Atlantic carrying nine satellites high above the Earth today (January 9), becoming Europe’s first satellite launch from British territory.
The operation will be launched shortly before midnight GMT at Newquay Airport in Cornwall as part of the ‘Start Me Up’ mission, potentially becoming a ‘major milestone’ for the UK’s space programme.
Melissa Thorpe, who heads Spaceport Cornwall said: "What we’ve seen over the last eight years is this building of excitement towards something very aspirational and different for Cornwall, something that started off as a project that not a lot of people really believed was ever going to happen.
"What I think people have seen here in Cornwall is a small team that lives and breathes this county and delivers something quite incredible." Following its departure, the 747 will head west out over the Atlantic to a designated launch zone just off the coast of the Irish counties of Kerry and Cork.
This first attempt into orbital launch from UK territory is being carried out by Virgin Orbit, an American business founded by Sir Richard Branson. The British entrepreneur has adapted one of his old passenger airliners to carry a rocket named LauncherOne beneath its left wing.
The Virgin jet will then release the rocket at the appropriate moment and at an altitude of 35,000 ft and will ignite its first-stage engine to begin the climb to orbit. Virgin Orbit, based in Long Beach, California, has successfully launched four rockets in a row over the Pacific Ocean so far.
The Mojave Air and Space Port, located north of Los Angeles, served as the launchpad for the flights. The team has since relocated to Cornwall to set up a new mission control for the UK operation.
Deenah Sanchez, the launch director, says it will be a complex operation. She told BBC News: "We basically have three different launch systems out there. We have our ground hardware, we have an entire aeroplane, and a rocket, and so we have people that specialise in each area here in the control room."
If all goes as planned, nine small satellites will be launched into an orbit more than 500 kilometres above the Earth. They are used for both civil and military purposes, ranging from ocean monitoring to navigation technology.
How to watch Virgin Orbit Satellite Launch
According to aviation news site simpleflying.com, members of the public can witness the launch in person by taking a bus provided by the organisers to the viewing area via Park and Ride from two locations - Tregunnel Hill, Newquay and Watergate Bay from 6pm.
For those unable to make it, you can watch the launch from any device via Virgin Orbit’s Youtube channel and the live stream is scheduled to begin at 9pm UTC and will feature extensive build-up interviews before the big launch.
The launch is expected to take place at 10.16pm at the earliest, with the LauncherOne rocket to be released approximately 40 minutes after Cosmic Girl - the Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft - takes off from Cornwall Newquay Airport.