Virgin Orbit, the small satellite launch company backed by billionaire Richard Branson, has signed an initial agreement to develop small satellite launch capabilities for the U.K.’s Royal Air Force (RAF). The deal, which is part of the RAF’s Artemis project, will see Virgin Orbit aim to launch hardware provided by Guildford, U.K.-based Surrey Satellites in a demo mission.
This is in keeping with Virgin Orbit’s stated hope to bring spacecraft launch capabilities to the U.K. The closest the U.K. has come is when it launched a British satellite aboard a British rocket in 1971 — but that took off from a launchpad in Australia. Virgin Orbit announced a deal to build a new Spaceport in Cornwall, from which its modified 747 launch aircraft will take off, with a target open date of early next decade.
Virgin Orbit’s method for launching doesn’t involve terrestrial rockets at all, which helps a lot with the cost of infrastructure (since you basically just need a traditional airfield). Basically, a smaller rocket is attached to the wing of a modified Boeing 747, which then separates at a high cruising altitude and blasts the rest of the relatively short way to low Earth orbit carrying light payloads.
The method doesn’t work to get big, heavy satellites into space (which, somewhat ironically in this case, are the kind typically sent up by government and military agencies). But it’s perfect for sending smaller satellites, which have become popular because of their cost benefits in terms of both construction and launch price.