Virgin Orbit will launch military satellites for National Reconnaissance Office and UK on milestone flight

By Elizabeth Howell,
Published by, 10 May 2022

The upcoming flight will be the first commercial rocket launch ever from Western Europe.

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will launch a joint mission with the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence on Virgin Orbit’s first-ever launch from the UK.

The collaboration will see the government military organizations working together on two “Prometheus 2” cubesats, which will launch among nine international rideshares from Spaceport Cornwall (in coastal southwestern England) as soon as summertime.

Prometheus 2, the UK government stated (opens in new tab) 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 communication system with our allies.” (The international collaboration includes the NRO, the agency that operates the United States’ fleet of spy satellites.)

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne takes off from a 747 aircraft. (Virgin Orbit)
Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air during the rocket’s first “drop test” in July 2019. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson)

All of the payloads will be lofted by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, which will be hauled high into the skies beneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft called Cosmic Girl

It’s the first horizontal launch for the NRO, the agency said in its own statement (opens in new tab) Tuesday. “Launching from the UK marks a continued expansion of NRO’s overseas launch locations, in addition to New Zealand, providing NRO with the ability to launch from three continents,” NRO officials said in the statement.

Virgin Orbit is a sister company of the space tourism provider Virgin Galactic; both companies belong to billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit has conducted three straight successful launches in 2021 and 2022, following a failure during its initial effort in May 2020.

Aside from the benefits to United Kingdom companies seeking a more local option for launching in Cornwall, Virgin Orbit says the 70-foot-long (21 meter) LauncherOne is more responsive and flexible than traditional rockets, which launch vertically. LauncherOne can launch up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) per mission, which is relatively modest compared to many types of rockets.

The company has said it plans five launches in 2022, including two from Spaceport Cornwall and three from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the takeoff point of all Virgin Orbit missions to date. Virgin Orbit is also seeking other new launching locations, with early possibilities including Guam, Japan and Brazil.

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