The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will launch a joint mission with the UK Ministry of Defense on Virgin Orbit’s first launch from the UK.
The collaboration will see government military organizations work together on two “Prometheus 2” cubesats, which will launch among nine international rideshares from Spaceport Cornwall (on the southwest coast of England) as early as the summer.
Prometheus 2, the UK government declared on Tuesday (May 10), “will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imagery, 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 US spy satellite fleet.)
In pictures: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions
All payloads will be launched by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, which will be carried high into the skies under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 transport plane called Cosmic Girl.
It is the NRO’s first horizontal launch, the agency said in its own statement on Tuesday. “The UK launch marks a continued expansion of NRO’s overseas launch locations, in addition to New Zealand, giving NRO the ability to launch from three continents,” NRO officials said in the statement.
Virgin Orbit is a sister company to space tourism provider Virgin Galactic; both companies belong to the Virgin Group of billionaire Richard Branson. Virgin Orbit has made three consecutive successful launches in 2021 and 2022, following a failure during its initial effort in May 2020.
Apart from the benefits for UK businesses looking for a more local option to launch in Cornwall, Virgin Orbit says the 70-foot-long (21-meter) LauncherOne is more responsive and flexible than traditional rockets, which are launched 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 launch point for all Virgin Orbit missions to date. Virgin Orbit is also looking at other new launch locations, with early possibilities including Guam, Japan and Brazil.
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