RAF pilot to launch space rocket from Virgin Atlantic jet

A former Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet has been modified to carry the 7ft rocket

Lucy Thackray
Thursday 13 January 2022 20:16
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A Virgin Orbit space rocket will be launched from a Virgin Atlantic plane over the Pacific Ocean today, flown by an experienced RAF pilot.

Matthew “Stanny” Stannard will take off at around 12.30pm Pacific Time (8.30pm GMT) on a mission to launch the 70ft “space booster”.

The modified Boeing 747-400 - a former Virgin Atlantic passenger jet named Cosmic Girl - will fly out over the Pacific with the rocket attached under its left wing.

About an hour into the flight, the pilot will drop the rocket from about 35,000ft - at which point its first engine will ignite, taking it on a climb into orbit.

“Stanny has been a wonderful addition to our team,” Virgin Orbit’s chief operating officer, Tony Gingiss, told the BBC.

“As you’d expect given his background with the RAF, he brings a bright intellect, incredible attention to detail, and an excellent experience base, in addition to his world-class piloting skills.

“Stanny’s been deeply involved in all of our planning, and after flying on our previous mission and logging many hours in the simulator, he will be in the right seat for our upcoming ‘Above the Clouds’ flight, releasing our LauncherOne rocket at the right time, sending our customers’ satellites on their way to orbit.”

Virgin Orbit has already successfully sent LauncherOne rockets into space from the Cosmic Girl aircraft in January and June 2021, and has put 19 satellites into orbit to date.

Based in Long Beach, California, it is part of a wave of companies targeting the launch market for increasingly capable small satellites, ranging in size from as small as a toaster to as large as a fridge.

The company is planning six space-launch missions for this year, one of which will take off from Newquay Airport in Cornwall.

The Ministry of Defence has plans to use the technology to launch military satellites in the future, with teams building experience in advance of this happening.

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