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For more than a quarter of a century, air-launch-to-orbit was the sole preserve of Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman). That all changed this year when Virgin Orbit placed ten CubeSats in a low-Earth orbit. Mark Broadbent explores the new path to space

Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne during the first successful test of the vehicle which included a polar orbit insertion of its ten NASA CubeSats in January 
Virgin Orbit

Better known for its regional jet connections and the comings and goings of local commuters such as Isles of Scilly Skybus Twin Otters, Cornwall Airport Newquay isn’t the first place you’d expect one of the UK’s biggest operators to create a widebody base. But then this isn’t your average widebody. While Boeing 747-400, N744VG (c/n 32745) Cosmic Girl, once criss-crossed the Atlantic ferrying fare-paying passengers for Virgin Atlantic, the jumbo has recently begun accepting a different kind of payload for another Branson-led business, Virgin Orbit.

The General Electric CF6-powered airliner is the space start-up’s flagship and only the second privately owned air-launch-to-orbit mothership in history. Leveraging the Boeing 747’s ability to transport a fifth engine, the one-of-a-kind 747 now has the capability to launch 24m-long rockets from an altitude of 35,000ft to place satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

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