Britain may have just announced its first vertical-launch spaceport will be sited on the north coast of Scotland, but the first space launch might take off at the opposite end of the country. The Virgin Galactic spin-off, Virgin Orbit, has announced that it will start launching satellites into orbit from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport Newquay by 2021, using rockets dropped from a modified Boeing 747.

At the opening of the Farnborough International Airshow on Monday, the British government emphasized its commitment to make UK into a major player in the space launching sector. In addition to establishing a conventional rocket launching site at Sutherland in Scotland, the UK Space Agency is also working to set up horizontal-launch spaceports at places like Cornwall Airport Newquay in southwest England and Glasgow Prestwick Airport in Scotland.

But it looks as if Virgin Orbit is trying to push to the front of the pack by announcing that the Long Beach, California-based company will be sending satellite payloads into orbit inside of three years from its base at Newquay – making them the first space launches ever from mainland Britain.

For the launches, Virgin Orbit will use its flagship aircraft, Cosmic Girl. This specially modified 747-400 airliner will take off from Newquay like any normal flight, but under its port wing in the "fifth engine" position used to ferry engine nacelles will be a LauncherOne rocket capable of sending a payload of up to 500 kg (1,100 lb) into a sun-synchronous orbit. The launch is a standard operating procedure where the 747 flies to cruising altitude, then drops the rocket that ignites and autonomously sets itself on the proper trajectory.

According to Virgin Orbit, the arrangement not only allows the company to operate out of conventional airports, but it also avoids the bottlenecks of conventional spaceports and provides much more flexibility regarding launch schedules. Once satellite launches begin, Newquay will be unique in being the only site on Earth where space and passenger airline flights will operate at the same time.

The animation below shows a Virgin Orbit launch.

Source: Virgin Orbit