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Virgin Orbit launches a rocket carrying 7 satellites

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Virgin Orbit launches a rocket carrying 7 satellites
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, like one shown here in a 2019 test over the Pacific Ocean, launched again Thursday. Photo courtesy of Greg Robinson/Virgin Orbit

Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Virgin Orbit kicked off an ambitious launch schedule for 2022 on Thursday by sending seven small satellites into space aboard a rocket launched from a jet high above the Pacific Ocean.

The LauncherOne rocket ignited around 2:53 p.m. PST from under the wing of the company's Cosmic Girl, a modified 747, about an hour after it took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California.

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"Release, Release, Release!" a Virgin Orbit official on the flight said during a live broadcast, followed by, "We have made it above the clouds and into orbit."

Minutes later, Virgin Orbit aerodynamicist Spencer Stebbins said the payloads had separated successfully in orbit from the first stage of the rocket. Images showed the satellites attached to the payload adapter with the curvature of the Earth in the background.

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"That's an absolutely gorgeous view of our system in space," Stebbins said.

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British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Orbit, said during the broadcast that the launch shows how space can benefit humanity.

"I think that the people who question space, space exploration -- they don't realize just how much it offers to mankind back here on Earth," he said. "One of our satellites that is going up today will be monitoring agriculture and crops around the world."

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The company said it would post further updates on its social media channels.

Virgin Orbit completed two successful launches using the same method in 2021.

Company officials said in a press conference Tuesday they hope to launch six missions in 2022, which would position the firm among the most active current space launch companies.

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"This year we're targeting six launches and basically doubling our cadence," CEO Dan Hart said.

Among other plans discussed Tuesday were goals to launch from Spaceport Cornwall in western England in 2022 and from Guam and Brazil in subsequent years.

Thursday's carried four satellites for the U.S. Department of Defense that will test undisclosed new technologies for in-space communication and navigation.

The mission also carried two tiny satellites for Polish company SatRevolution, which was a Virgin Orbit customer on its last launch in June.

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SatRevolution's spacecraft for Thursday's launch are known as STORK-3, which gathers images and data of farmland, and SteamSat-2, which will test water-fueled thrusters.

Finally, Virginia-based Spire Global, a satellite imaging provider, launched Adler-1, which was developed in partnership with German and Austrian partners to study space debris in low-Earth orbit.

The rocket carried the satellites to a unique orbit, launching on a 45-degree inclination from the equator, which had never been attempted from the West Coast, said Tony Gingiss, Virgin Orbit chief operating officer.

Achieving such an orbit is "really showing the flexibility and capability of our system that [enables us] to get to a place where we can get to this orbit," Gingiss said.

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl can take off from any major airport runway carrying the rocket under its wing, whereas most rockets can only launch from vertical space launchpads.

The company currently seeks licensing to launch from Guam and final approvals to launch from Spaceport Cornwall, Gingiss said.

If the company's plan to launch from Cornwall is successful, that would mark the first ever orbital space launch from England or Europe, Hart said.

The European Space Agency has a successful space program using French company Arianespace's rockets, but those launch from the agency's spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

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Thursday's Virgin Orbit mission was named Above the Clouds, which references Virgin Orbit's former parent company Virgin Group, which still owns a majority stake in the launcher. Virgin Records' released hip hop duo Gang Starr's Above the Clouds album in 1998.

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