Monday, January 17, 2022

The Virgin Orbit space rocket is launched over the Pacific

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An RAF pilot has helped launch a rocket into space over the Pacific Ocean.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew “Stanny” Stannard, seconded to Sir Richard Branson’s satellite launch company Virgin Orbit, is part of a crew that took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California for launch on Thursday evening.

He helped pilot the rocket under the company’s LauncherOne system, released from a modified Boeing 747-400 called the Cosmic Girl.

Just before 11pm, Virgin Orbit confirmed in a live stream that “LauncherOne is in space”.

Virgin Orbit tweeted: “Looks like we’ve made it above the clouds and are on our way to orbit. It’s a beauty up here!”

They added: “Blue has turned to black. LauncherOne is in space.”

Flt Lt Stannard, a Typhoon pilot with one of the RAF’s Test and Evaluation Squadrons, is part of a crew on Cosmic Girl alongside Chief Pilot Eric Bippert, who has over 1,000 hours of test flight experience, and Launch Engineers Sarah Barnes and Bryce Schaefer.

Their job was to monitor the aircraft and missile data from their stations on the upper deck.

Virgin Orbit tweeted “Now we’re floating” after launching for the approximately hour-long journey to the launch point in the Pacific Ocean, where LauncherOne will be released to begin its powered flight into orbit.

Sir Richard Branson said he was “excited” and “slightly nervous” after watching the start.

He said: “With these early flights you can never be sure that every mission will be successful, (I’m) just on the edge of my seat.

“It’s unbelievable what the whole team has achieved.

“It’s always incredible to watch and a great privilege.”

Sir Richard said: “I think people who question space exploration just don’t realize how much it offers to humanity here on Earth. One of our satellites, which will be launched today, will monitor agriculture and crops around the world.

“It’s this wonderful diversity of different organizations and companies that have brilliant ideas to try and use space for better things here on Earth.”

Virgin Orbit said the mission’s name, Above The Clouds, was a tribute to hip-hop group Gang Starr’s 1998 album Moment Of Truth, on which the song Above The Clouds has the lyrics, “Above the clouds , where the sounds are original – infinite abilities create wonders.”

The missile has seven satellites, including some from the US Department of Defense, which are experimenting with space-based communications.

The mission is the third for Sir Richard’s company – the LauncherOne system has previously launched 19 satellites.

In the Above The Clouds mission, a satellite was manufactured in Glasgow by Spire Global, a data analytics company involved in tracking weather patterns.

The return of Flt Lt Stannard to the RAF should help improve Britain’s understanding of the military uses of small satellites, according to the MoD.

The airman, who completed RAF officer training in May 2007, has accumulated more than 1,000 hours on Tornados during multiple combat missions.

Flt Lt Stannard said at the time of his secondment in 2019 that “joining Virgin Orbit’s space program is a truly unique opportunity”.

He added: “This program is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space so it’s a real privilege to be a part of and I look forward to bringing the skills and knowledge I’m gaining back to the RAF. “

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