Engineers are making final preparations for the first satellite launch from the U.K. later Monday, when a modified passenger plane is expected to release a Virgin Orbit rocket carrying nine small satellites into space.
If successful, the mission will mark the first orbital space launch from U.K. soil and the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson. The company, which is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, has already completed four similar launches from the U.S.
The latest mission will see a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft carrying a rocket take off from Cornwall in southwestern England from around 10:15 p.m. (2215 GMT; 5:15 p.m. EST) on Monday. Around an hour into the flight, the plane will release the rocket at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.
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The rocket will then take nine small satellites for mixed civil and defense use into orbit, while the plane returns to Cornwall. Some of the satellites are meant for U.K. defense monitoring, while others are for businesses such as those working in navigational technology. One Welsh company is looking to manufacture materials such as electronic components in space.
It will be the first commercial satellite launch from Western Europe, the U.K. Space Agency said. In the past, satellites produced in the U.K. had to be sent to spaceports in other countries to make their journey into space.
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“This is the start of a new era for the U.K. in terms of launch capabilities,” said Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the U.K. Space Agency. He said there was strong market demand for small satellite launches and that the U.K. has ambitions to be “the hub of European launches.”
The mission is a collaboration between the U.K. Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Council. Annett said it was too early to say whether more missions are planned in coming months.
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The launch was originally planned for late last year, but it was postponed because of technical and regulatory issues.