The joint mission will see Virgin Orbit deliver two “Prometheus 2” CubeSats — cube-shaped miniature satellites with 3.9-inch-long faces — up into low-Earth orbit from Cornwall. They will be transported on board LauncherOne, a two-stage, air-launched rocket that is itself carried up into the atmosphere on board a modified Boeing 747 dubbed “Cosmic Girl”. According to Virgin Orbit, the CubeSats will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS, as well as sophisticated imaging technology.
The objective of the mission is to allow the MoD to better understand how the UK and its international partners can collaborate in the arena of space communications.
The goal is to demonstrate how, together, it will be possible to produce a more flexible and powerful satellite communications system at a lower cost than might be achieved solo.
This, Virgin Orbit said, will “pave the way for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with our allies.”
Technology loaded onboard the two satellites has been developed to help identify new algorithms and techniques for data processing and satellite operations.
The launch will also be notable for being Virgin Orbit’s first overseas flight — not to mention LauncherOne’s sixth consecutive mission carrying commercial and government customers.
The launch from Cornwall’s Newquay airport will demonstrate that Cosmic Girl can be deployed from any 747-capable airfield globally.
In order to make preparations for lift-off, Virgin Orbit said that it has been working closely with the UK Civil Aviation Authority, the Royal Air Force and the team at Spaceport Cornwall.
The mission will be the first time that the NRO has made use of a “horizontal” rocket firing from a flying launch platform.
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Cosmic Girl — which was formerly a passenger airliner operated by Virgin Atlantic — made its first successful orbital launch back in the January of last year.
This operation saw it help LauncherOne deploy ten CubeSats into low-Earth orbit.
The use of a larger 747 airliner, rather than a smaller craft, allows LauncherOne a maximum payload capacity of 880 lbs.
747s have previously been used to launch other craft, including the Space Shuttle Enterprise.