A modified jumbo jet carrying a Virgin Orbit rocket took off from southwestern England Monday, marking the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from Western Europe.
Hundreds gathered for the launch cheered as the repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named “Cosmic Girl,” took off from Cornwall late Monday. Around an hour into the flight, the plane will release the rocket at 35,000 feet (around 10,000 meters) over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.
The rocket will then take nine small satellites for mixed civil and defense use into orbit, while the plane, piloted by a Royal Air Force pilot, returns to Cornwall.
If successful, the mission will mark the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson. The company, which is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, has already completed four similar launches from California.
In the past, satellites produced in the U.K. had to be sent to spaceports in other countries to make their journey into space.
Some of the satellites are meant for U.K. defense monitoring, while others are for businesses such as those working in navigational technology. One Welsh company is looking to manufacture materials such as electronic components in space.
“This is the start of a new era for the U.K. in terms of launch capabilities,” said Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the U.K. Space Agency. There was strong market demand for small satellite launches, he said, and the U.K. has ambitions to be ”the hub of European launches.”
Annett said it was too early to say whether more missions are planned in coming months.
The mission is a collaboration between the U.K. Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Council.
The launch was originally planned for late last year, but it was postponed because of technical and regulatory issues.