LONDON (AP) — A modified jumbo jet carried a Virgin Orbit rocket from the U.K. and released it into space from the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, marking the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from Western Europe.
The mission, which saw the rocket taking nine small satellites for mixed civil and defense use into orbit, was the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson. The company, which is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, has already completed four similar launches from California.
Hundreds gathered for the launch cheered as a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named “Cosmic Girl,” took off from Cornwall in southwestern England late Monday. Around an hour into the flight, the plane released the rocket at around 35,000 feet (around 10,000 meters) over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.
The rocket then headed into space while the plane, piloted by a Royal Air Force pilot, returned to Cornwall.
Some of the satellites are meant for U.K. defense monitoring, while others are for businesses such as those working in navigational technology. One Welsh company is looking to manufacture materials such as electronic components in space.
“This is the start of a new era for the U.K. in terms of launch capabilities," said Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the U.K. Space Agency. There was strong market demand for small satellite launches, he said, and the U.K. has ambitions to be ”the hub of European launches."
Annett said it was too early to say whether more missions are planned in coming months.
In the past, satellites produced in the U.K. had to be sent to spaceports in other countries to make their journey into space.
The mission is a collaboration between the U.K. Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Council.
The launch was originally planned for late last year, but it was postponed because of technical and regulatory issues.