National Reconnaissance Office to launch mission on Virgin Orbit rocket from U.K. spaceport

The launch from Spaceport Cornwall will be the first commercial rocket to lift off from the U.K.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense will launch a joint mission this summer on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, U.K. defense procurement minister Jeremy Quin announced May 10.

The launch from Spaceport Cornwall — located at Newquay Airport in Cornwall, England — will be the first commercial rocket to lift off from the U.K. and from Western Europe. Virgin Orbit will fly nine payloads to orbit using the LauncherOne small launch platform deployed from a modified Boeing 747 aircraft.

“It’s an honor to join the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense in announcing this historic enterprise,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said in a statement.

This mission will fly NRO payloads and two U.K. MOD Prometheus 2 cubesats carrying pathfinder experiments in support of the U.K. Minerva constellation for future space-based intelligence and surveillance.

Launching from the U.K. “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,” the agency said.  

This is also the NRO’s first contract for a horizontal launch. The launch was acquired from Virgin Orbit National Systems, the company’s U.S. subsidiary formerly known as VOX Space.

This NRO said this is the first task order from a streamlined launch Indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract.

 Virgin Orbit on Monday announced its next space launch will be the U.S. military STP-28A Space Test Program mission, projected to fly no earlier than June 29 from the Mojave Air and Space Port, in California. STP-28A will carry seven experimental satellites from multiple government agencies and Aerospace Corp.’s Slingshot 1 intended to demonstrate a novel modular satellite bus.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has flown three successful missions since a failed May 2020 test flight. In December, the company went public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company and now trades on the Nasdaq.

CEO Dan Hart told CNBC  May 10 Virgin Orbit plans to expand its fleet of rocket-carrier aircraft and has ordered two new modified cargo airframes.

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