On Wednesday 12th October 2022, a Boeing 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' landed at Newquay Airport in Cornwall. This aircraft belongs to 'Virgin Orbit' and is used to launch small satellites via their air-launched LauncherOne two-stage rocket. The rocket arrived at Newquay Airport in an RAF C-17 Globemaster III (ZZ174) aircraft on Friday 14th October 2022.
Virgin Orbit plan to launch Cosmic Girl, from Newquay Airport, complete with the LauncherOne rocket, sometime after 29th October 2022, to deploy a number of small satellites into low-earth-orbit. This would be the first orbital satellite launch from the UK. More details of the satellites can be found here.
The Boeing 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' pilot for this historic mission will be Squadron Leader Mathew "Stanny" Stannard and the aircraft will take part in a series of rehearsals leading up to launch day.
The LauncherOne rocket will be released from Cosmic Girl west of the UK and southwest of Ireland and will continue south-southwest over the Atlantic Ocean, where the rocket's Stage 1 section and payload fairings will be jettisoned and deposited into Portuguese waters, and the satellite payloads will be released into orbit.
Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of one launch in 2022 and approximately two launches per year over the next 8 years (January 2023 - December 2030) from Spaceport Cornwall (Newquay Airport).
Virgin Orbit livestream each of their missions so you can watch the launch on Youtube:
Launch Day - Monday 9th January 2023
The launch took place on the night of Monday 9th January 2023. The Boeing 747 'Cosmic Girl' took-off from Newquay Airport with the LauncherOne rocket, reaching the holding pattern, in the Atlantic, just southwest of Ireland, and releasing the rocket. The first-stage rocket fired successfully but there was a problem with the engine-burn of the second-stage which resulted in the satellites being lost. It appears that the rocket did not reach the correct altitude however an official investigation will now be held to find out the cause of the anomaly. The rocket debris will have fallen into the Atlantic Ocean well away from any populated areas. The Boeing 747 returned safely to Newquay Airport.
The failure of the first ever satellite mission launched from UK soil is a setback but not a roadblock to the country's space plans. Plans for the UK to become a satellite-launching state are already well advanced and launches are also planned in Scotland, from Sutherland and Shetland using a conventional rocket launched from the ground. Deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency, Ian Annett, said it showed "how difficult" getting into orbit actually was but predicted further launches within the next 12 months.
Virgin Orbit is continuing to process its next scheduled rocket through final integration and checkout ahead of its upcoming mission, which is planned to occur from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Virgin Orbit also anticipates returning to Spaceport Cornwall for additional launches, and is in active discussions with key government and commercial stakeholders in the UK to start planning mission opportunities for as soon as later this year (2023).
Virgin Orbit is a company within the Virgin Group which provides launch services for small satellites. The company, based in Long Beach, California, was formed in 2017 to develop the air-launched LauncherOne rocket which is launched from Boeing 747 'Cosmic Girl'.
The LauncherOne two-stage air-launched rocket began operational flights in 2021. It is designed to carry small satellites into orbit and is carried to the upper atmosphere on a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft. It is then released and the rocket engine then propels it into low-earth-orbit.
The first successful launch of the LauncherOne rocket was on 17 January 2021 when ten NASA sponsored CubeSats were placed into orbit. Three later successful missions were undertaken on 30th June 2021, 13th January 2022 and 2nd July 2022 all from Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field (IATA: MHV, ICAO: KMHV) in Mojave, California.
The next launch is expected to be from Spaceport Cornwall (Newquay Airport), in the UK, sometime after 29th October 2022. This will be the first LauncherOne flight from Spaceport Cornwall and will carry into low Earth orbit a number of small satellites including from the Prometheus-2 and Amber-1 missions. If successful, this would be the first orbital satellite launch from the UK.
Both Spaceport Cornwall (Newquay Airport) and Virgin Orbit are waiting on licences that have yet to be issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This is taking longer than planned but the launch is still expected before the end of 2022.
Cosmic Girl (Boeing 747)
Cosmic Girl is the name of the Boeing 747-400 aircraft that is the launch platform for the LauncherOne rocket which carries small satellites into orbit.
The aircraft was delivered to Virgin Atlantic in October 2001 and registered as G-VWOW. It was transferred to 'Virgin Galactic' in 2015 and re-registered in the United States as N744VG and is currently based at Long Beach Airport in California.
A 747 was selected for its carrying capacity which allowed it to carry SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne. Cosmic Girl was then transferred to Virgin Orbit in 2017 to carry the LauncherOne rocket.
The LauncherOne attachment pylon is situated on the aircraft's left wing where on a normal 747, the fifth engine attachment point is located for ferrying engines. This point is located between the fuselage and the left inboard engine. The LauncherOne rocket is dropped from 'Cosmic Girl' at a height of 35,000 feet where the rocket is released, its engine fired, and it then ascends to the desired orbit where the satellite payload is released.
Newquay Airport (IATA: NQY, ICAO: EGHQ) is the main commercial airport for Cornwall. It is located at Mawgan in Pydar, 4.6 miles northeast of the town of Newquay on Cornwall's north coast. Its runway was operated by RAF St Mawgan before 2008, and is now owned by Cornwall Council and operated by Cornwall Airport Ltd. The 9,003 ft runway can take the largest and fastest of civil and military aircraft, having been built and maintained for decades as an RAF maritime operations base.
In June 2019, the UK government and Cornwall Council announced they were prepared to invest in the airport to create a Spaceport Cornwall as a base for Virgin Orbit. The system would launch satellite carrying rockets to space from under the wing of a converted Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet by the early 2020s dependent on the business case put forward. On 5 November 2019, UK Space Agency announced that it will provide money to establish Virgin Orbit operations at Spaceport Cornwall.
Virgin Orbit: Branson's rocket dream ends after mission failure
Earlier this year, a Virgin Orbit rocket failed to complete the first ever satellite launch from UK soil.
Sir Richard Branson's rocket company Virgin Orbit has shut down, just months after a major mission failure.
The firm's converted jet and leases on properties have been sold for $36m (£29m), just a fraction of the $3.7bn the company was valued at in 2021. Virgin Orbit's headquarters, rocket factory and equipment were bought by rival start-up, Rocket Lab, for $16.1m. Its converted Boeing 747 jet, called Cosmic Girl, was sold for $17m to aerospace firm Stratolaunch.
Approximate map showing Boeing 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' route from Newquay Airport to a holding pattern southwest of Ireland. The LauncherOne rocket is launched and the map shows several Danger Areas in case the rocket malfunctions and there is any debris.