Virgin Orbit to launch test satellites for US and UK forces in first-ever launch from English soil

The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will launch a joint mission with the United Kingdom Department of Defense to launch the first ever Virgin Orbit launch from the UK.

As part of the cooperation, government military organizations will work together on two Prometheus 2 cubesats, which will be launched amid nine international flights from the Cornwall spaceport (in coastal southwest England) as early as the summer.

Prometheus 2, the UK government said on Tuesday (May 10), “will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communications system with our allies.” (International cooperation includes NRO, the agency that manages the US fleet of spy satellites.)

Pictured: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket to launch satellites.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne in the air during its first test flight in July 2019.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne in the air during the rocket’s first “drop test” in July 2019. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)

All payloads will be lifted by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, which will fly high into the sky under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft called Cosmic Girl.

This is NRO’s first horizontal launch, the agency said in a statement on Tuesday. “The launch from the UK marks the continued expansion of NRO’s overseas launch sites other than New Zealand, giving NRO the ability to launch from three continents,” NRO said in a statement.

Virgin Orbit is a subsidiary of space tourism provider Virgin Galactic; both companies are owned by billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit has had three successful launches in a row in 2021 and 2022 after failing during an initial attempt in May 2020.

In addition to benefits for UK companies looking for a more local launch option in Cornwall, Virgin Orbit says the 70-foot (21-metre) LauncherOne is more responsive and flexible than traditional rockets that launch vertically. LauncherOne can launch up to 1,100 pounds (500 kg) per mission, which is relatively modest compared to many rocket types.

The company said it plans five launches in 2022, including two from Cornwall and three from Mojave Airfield and California, where all Virgin Orbit missions depart to date. Virgin Orbit is also looking for other new launch locations, including Guam, Japan and Brazil.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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