Spaceflight history will be made on Monday (Jan. 9), if all goes according to plan.
Virgin Orbit's "Start Me Up" mission is scheduled to lift off at 5:16 p.m. EST (2216 GMT) on Monday from Spaceport Cornwall in England, company representatives announced on Friday (Jan. 6). "Start Me Up" will be the first-ever orbital launch from the United Kingdom and the first commercial mission to take flight from Western Europe.
"This is a significant landmark for the nation, the U.K. Space Agency and for all those
who have worked so hard over many years to make our ambitions to create a
commercial space launch capability a reality," Ian Annett, deputy CEO of the U.K. Space Agency, said in a statement.
Virgin Orbit uses a carrier plane called Cosmic Girl, which takes off from a runway with a 70-foot-long (21 meters) rocket named LauncherOne tucked under one wing. Cosmic Girl drops LauncherOne at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (11,000 meters); the rocket then fires up its engines and makes its way to orbit through the thin air.
Flexibility and responsiveness are baked into this air-launch strategy, Virgin Orbit representatives say. Virgin Orbit's sister company, the suborbital tourism outfit Virgin Galactic, employs an air-launch system as well. (Both Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic are part of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group.)
On "Start Me Up," LauncherOne will carry a total of nine small satellites to orbit for seven different customers.
"The missions of these satellites span a wide range of activities aimed at improving life on planet Earth, including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling and terrorism; and a host of national security functions," Virgin Orbit wrote in a mission description.
Virgin Orbit has five launches under its belt to date, all of which have lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The first mission, a test flight that lifted off in May 2020, failed. But the most recent four have all been successful, deploying a total of 33 satellites into orbit.
Virgin Orbit had originally targeted November 2022 for the launch of "Start Me Up," which takes its name from the 1981 Rolling Stones hit. However, delays in securing the necessary regulatory approvals pushed things back.
Those approvals are now in place, and Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne are ready for liftoff. That readiness was verified via an end-to-end launch rehearsal, which the mission team conducted on Thursday (Jan. 5), Virgin Orbit representatives said.
If "Start Me Up" can't get off the ground on Monday, backup dates are available from mid- to late January, company representatives said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.