Virgin Cosmic Girl Ready to Carry UK’s First Orbital Mission, Window Opens on January 9

We’re used to seeing all kinds of things being carried to space these days, as the world seems to have found a new pleasure in sending stuff up there. Almost always, the hardware designed to do this takes off vertically from a pad – you know, the traditional way. But that’s not what Virgin Orbit is doing.
Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl 9 photos
Photo: Virgin Orbit/pacalin
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For a while now Richard Branson’s space company (one of several) has been trying to reinvent what a space launch means, at least as far as cargo of a certain size and weight is concerned. For this crew, such an operation does not involve a launch pad as we know it, but one in the form of a modified airplane.

The concept behind this idea is simple: take an aircraft enhanced in such a way as to be able to carry a two-stage orbital rocket under its wings, get it airborne and to a set altitude, and release the rocket from there, ridding it of the troubles of having to defeat Earth’s gravity at ground level.

It is, if you like, not so different than a fighter plane releasing a missile, only this time we’re dealing with a civilian aircraft and a rocket capable of reaching space. The plane would be a Boeing 747 its owners have christened Cosmic Girl, while the rocket which carries the payload is known as LauncherOne.

Because such launches do not require specialized ground equipment, Virgin could technically do that from any airport in the world, including countries that have sent nothing to orbit from their territories until now.

The UK is one such nation, but that’s about to change. Almost five years after Virgin announced the Cornwall Airport in South West England will be a departure point for Cosmic Girl, the Brits are preparing for what is described as their first-ever orbital launch.

The mission is called Start Me Up in honor of the Rolling Stones hit by the same name from the 1980s, and will see the LauncherOne carrying commercial and government satellites from seven customers. The cargo manifest includes Aman, Oman’s first orbital mission in the form of an Earth observation satellite.

It will be not only the UK’s first orbital launch, but also Western Europe’s first commercial and Virgin’s first international launch. That’s because the company is based in Long Beach, California, and all previous missions were flown from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the same state.

The window for Start Me Up departure opens on January 9, and several others will become available throughout the month should something not be right next Monday. Virgin already completed earlier this week an end-to-end launch rehearsal for the launcher, meaning the rocket was loaded with fuel and subjected to a mock countdown.

Generally, a mission goes a bit like this: Cosmic Girl climbs to around 35,000 feet (10 km), then LauncherOne separates and moves its cargo (which can weigh as much as 300 kg/660 lbs) to the desired orbit.

To date, Virgin Orbit launched four missions carrying a total of 33 satellites. Word is the company is charging $12 million per launch.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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