Virgin Orbit will launch military satellites for National Reconnaissance Office and UK on milestone flight

Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with the LauncherOne rocket underwing for the company's "Tubular Bells: Part 1" mission on June 30, 2021.
Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with the LauncherOne rocket underwing for the company's "Tubular Bells: Part 1" mission on June 30, 2021. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will launch a joint mission with the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence on Virgin Orbit's first-ever launch from the UK.

The collaboration will see the government military organizations working together on two "Prometheus 2" cubesats, which will launch among nine international rideshares from Spaceport Cornwall (in coastal southwestern England) as soon as summertime.

Prometheus 2, the UK government stated on Tuesday (May 10), "will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals including GPS and sophisticated imaging, 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 United States' fleet of spy satellites.)

In photos: Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air during the first test flight in July 2019

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air during the rocket's first "drop test" in July 2019. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson)

All of the payloads will be lofted by Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, which will be hauled high into the skies beneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft called Cosmic Girl

It's the first horizontal launch for the NRO, the agency said in its own statement Tuesday. "Launching from the UK marks a continued expansion of NRO's overseas launch locations, in addition to New Zealand, providing NRO with the ability to launch from three continents," NRO officials said in the statement.

Virgin Orbit is a sister company of the space tourism provider Virgin Galactic; both companies belong to billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit has conducted three straight successful launches in 2021 and 2022, following a failure during its initial effort in May 2020.

Aside from the benefits to United Kingdom companies seeking a more local option for launching in Cornwall, Virgin Orbit says the 70-foot-long (21 meter) 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 has said it plans five launches in 2022, including two from Spaceport Cornwall and three from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the takeoff point of all Virgin Orbit missions to date. Virgin Orbit is also seeking other new launching locations, with early possibilities including Guam, Japan and Brazil.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: