Alex Wilkins is a writer.

An adapted Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl

The Cosmic Girl will be taking off from Spaceport Cornwall with a rocket under one wing.

There is a spaceport in Cornwall.

The UK is expected to have its first orbital satellite launch tonight at Spaceport Cornwall. The rocket will be dropped from a modified Boeing plane at 35,000 feet off the south coast of Ireland if it succeeds.

The UK's second-largest satellite building industry is dependent on public and private launches in other countries to get its products into space. Tonight's success will mark the beginning of an era in which the UK can launch its own satellites as well as those from other countries.

The director of the UK space flight programme at the UK Space Agency says it has been a long road to get to this point. A lot has been done behind the scenes.

The Cosmic Girl plane, which has a rocket attached under one wing, was submitted to lashings of wind and rain on the runway as the Virgin Orbit team carried out last minute pre-flight checks. The set up passed a wet dress rehearsal last week.

Even if the weather gets worse, the plane should be able to fly. It is a well-proven plane. Ian Annett is the deputy CEO for programme delivery at UKSA. One of the advantages of having a rocket underneath its left wing is that you can launch it above the weather.

If the green light is given, the plane will leave between 9.40 pm and 11 pm and head towards the Irish Sea, where it will drop the rocket about an hour later.

The first stage burn of the rocket will run for around 20 minutes and accelerate it to 12,900 kilometres per hour, which will be the time it takes for it to reach its destination.

The first stage of the rocket will be dropped and the second stage will be used to accelerate it to over 30,000 kph. After being deployed, it will reach its height of around 500 kilometres over Australia.

The previous rocket launches in California have given the Virgin Orbit team confidence that tonight's attempt will go smoothly, with the operation of the system essentially the same. There is only one difference between being in Cornwall and the US.

Small military communications satellites from the UK Ministry of Defence, a pair of ionospheric monitors in a US-UK military collaboration, and a Scottish company are among the satellites aboard.

The combination of a long runway, easy access to the sea and a relatively sparse civilian population made Newquay the top choice for the UK's first satellite launch.

There is excitement in the town, too, both for the launch itself, which hundreds of locals will attend tonight, ferried from shuttle buses in town, and for what the spaceport might bring to the area.

The UK government hopes to eventually have a network of spaceports, including a vertical launch facility in the Shetland Islands, which will carry out a rocket launch later this year. The UKSA hopes to have at least 15 launches a year in the next 10 years, which will put it on a level playing field with countries that have more established space industries.

It's free to sign up for our newsletter every Friday.

The tour has a related one.

New Scientist Default Image

There are more on this topic.