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Jumbo jet to carry rocket above California Coast, and then launch it to carry satellites into orbit

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Virgin Orbit Photo
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Liftoff for one of Virgin Orbit's 2021 satellite launch missions.

Mission set for Thursday afternoon; Will be live streamed for public to watch.

A unique space mission is set to get its start in California Thursday.

A jumbo jet will fly out over the ocean off the Southern California coast, and launch a rocket being carried under its wing to boost some satellites into orbit.

Will Pomerantz is Vice President of Special Projects for Virgin Orbit. He says a specially modified 747 jumbo jet will carry a "LauncherOne" rocket to 35,000 feet, where it will be launched to carry some small satellites into orbit.

The company developed the unique launch approach after noticing a surge in the development of smaller, and lower cost satellites. Because the payloads are much smaller, in many cases the small satellites can be put into orbit for much less than from conventionally launched rockets.

Virgin Orbit is based in Long Beach, with test and launch facilities in the Southern California desert community of Mojave.  It’s part of the family of Richard Branson’s Virgin-branded companies ranging from airlines to health clubs.  And, it’s closest relative is Virgin Galactic, which is in the commercial passenger space flight business.

Thursday's flight plan calls for the mission to take place during a 1 to 3:30 p.m. launch window.

After some test flights, this is the third actual mission for the two-stage LauncherOne rockets. A total of 19 military and civilian satellites were successful put into orbit during the first two flights.

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Virgin Orbit Photo
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One of the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne launches.

Thursday's mission is called “Above the Clouds”.  The goal is to put seven military and civilian satellites into orbit.

It’s a fitting name, because one of the advantages using the jumbo jet is that the rocket is already six miles up above the earth before the rocket engine is started.

The approach opens the door to maximizing the orbits for the small satellites.  Pomerantz says because the launch isn’t from a fixed landing pad fly to the spot and launch from where they can achieve the best orbit.

While the initially missions have been based in Southern California, the plan is to take the mobile launch ability around the world, for other customers.

Virgin Orbit is planning to live stream the mission beginning with preflight activities at 12:30 Thurday afternoon.