The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will launch a joint mission with the UK Ministry of Defense on the first-ever Virgin Orbit launch from the UK.
The collaboration will see government military organizations working together on two “Prometheus 2” cubesats, which will be launched among nine international carpools from Spaceport Cornwall (on the south-west coast of England) starting in the summer.
Prometheus 2, the British government declared Tuesday, May 10, “will provide a test platform for radio signal monitoring, including GPS and sophisticated imagery, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communications system with our allies.” (The international collaboration includes the NRO, the agency that operates the US spy satellite fleet.)
In picture : Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions
All payloads will be carried by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, which will be carried high into the sky under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft called Cosmic Girl.
This is the NRO’s first horizontal launch, the agency said in its own statement Tuesday. “The launch from the UK marks a continued expansion of NRO’s launch sites overseas, in addition to New Zealand, giving NRO the ability to launch from three continents,” NRO officials said. in the press release.
Virgin Orbit is a sister company to space tourism provider Virgin Galactic; both companies are owned by billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit has completed three consecutive successful launches in 2021 and 2022, following a failure during its initial effort in May 2020.
Along with the benefits for UK companies looking for a more local option for launching in Cornwall, Virgin Orbit says the 70-foot-long (21-metre) 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 said it plans five launches in 2022, including two from Spaceport Cornwall and three from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the take-off point for all Virgin Orbit missions to date. Virgin Orbit is also looking at other new launch sites, with early possibilities including Guam, Japan and Brazil.