At the far southwestern tip of England, dangling into the Atlantic, the remote region of Cornwall rarely feels like the center of the world.
But recently locals have been feeling tantalizingly close as they’ve watched a very special plane fly low overhead, taking off from the runway at little Newquay Airport – the 29th biggest airport in the UK – and circling the skies above the coast before touching back down.
This isn’t just any plane. Nor is it a normal Boeing 747, as it appears from the ground. In fact, it’s the “Queen of the Skies” repurposed for the space race, making trial flights before it takes part in the United Kingdom’s first orbital space launch next month. And it’ll be taking off from Spaceport Cornwall, which shares the airport’s 1.7-mile regular runway.
Marc Andrew, from nearby Newquay, traveled to the spaceport after work to see the aircraft land this week.
“It was amazing to watch, and will be a nice bit of history to tell my little boy when he’s older,” he told CNN. He is now preparing to return for the November launch.
Cosmic Girl, as the plane has been named, is the vessel for Virgin Orbit’s bid to launch seven satellites into space.
A former passenger jumbo jet in service with Virgin Atlantic until 2015, it has been modified to carry LauncherOne, a California-made rocket which will go into the Earth’s orbit.
Next month, Cosmic Girl will take off from Newquay’s clifftop runway with LauncherOne under its wing – and once the 747 hits 34,000 feet, it’ll release the rocket.
Inside will be seven payloads, or satellites, which will start circling the planet in low Earth orbit.
A trial last year saw the rocket – released from under the 747’s left wing – traveling at up to 17,000 miles an hour as it zoomed into space.
Using a 747 for a horizontal launch enables a “broader range of orbits than would be possible from a traditional ground-launched system,” Virgin Orbit wrote in a statement.
The event will be the first orbital space launch for the UK and the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, according to the company. It’ll also be Europe’s first satellite launch, according to Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency.
LauncherOne completed its first full launch rehearsal in Long Beach, California, on October 2, before being flown to the UK last Friday to meet Cosmic Girl, which arrived in Cornwall on October 11.
Cosmic Girl completed a nearly three-hour test flight around Cornwall and Southwest England on October 14, with Cornwall locals noting it flying low over their gardens.
Virgin Orbit’s chief pilot, Matthew Stannard, who will fly the 747 for the launch, said: “It feels amazing to bring Cosmic Girl home to the UK We are weeks away now from the first UK launch at Spaceport Cornwall so it’s all very real.”
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “Seeing the infrastructure in place makes our launch ambitions a reality.”
Hoping to see more Cosmic Girls? Virgin Orbit is planning to bring horizontal launches to Australia, Brazil, Japan, Poland and the Republic of Korea.