UK Spaceport fights delays to become Europe’s premier launch site

The UK is officially rejoining the small list of countries that have space launch capability, as Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin group, will launch satellites from the UK for the first time in history. Europe currently lacks any active launch sites, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cut off Russian launch capabilities from the west. Designed to take small satellites into space for which there is a backlog of demand, Virgin Orbit and Cornwall spaceport will fill a gap in rocket launch capability. Set to take place from Cornwall Spaceport in December, it has been delayed again until the new year.

Air-launched rockets from the Cosmic Girl

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is an oddity among rocket companies. The company utilizes the ‘Cosmic Girl’, a modified Boeing 747 with a 70 foot long rocket, the LauncherOne, strapped under the wing. The jet flies out over the Atlantic Ocean, climbing to cruising height and then entering an oval pattern from where the rocket is launched. Dan Hart, CEO and President of Virgin Orbit is excited about the prospects, stating, “We feel tremendously honored to have this role—there’s a real joy in doing a launch for the first time from the UK.”

Spaceport Cornwall – The UK’s first

Spaceport Cornwall, repurposed from the region’s largest airport, Cornwall Airport Newquay, is no Cape Canaveral. There are no vehicle assembly buildings or launchpads – the airport hosts a single 2.7-km runway which allows the Cosmic Girl to take off. The biggest changes from its airport fit-out are a new building that will allow Virgin Orbit to load satellites into its rocket and then attach it to the wing of its plane, and an on-site mission control that will conduct the launch. During the day, regular commercial flights will use the airport, but once these have ended, Virgin Orbit will take off and begin the launch.

The location is well-chosen: The UK is an island at a reasonably high latitude which means rockets can launch North over uninhabited ocean and enter into a polar orbit. This is very useful for observation satellites which enable images of the planet to be taken as it rotates underneath. Air-launching from a modified Boeing 747 also means the jet’s flight path can be modified per-launch, giving Virgin Orbit’s customers flexibility not available from other launch sites.

Delays mount for the start of operation

Spaceport Cornwall was given an operating license by the Civil Aviation Authority of the UK in November after months of delays, officially making it the country’s first spaceport. However, Virgin Orbit, and the seven satellites loaded into LauncherOne have not yet received a license.

Despite the delays, it seems assured that the launch will take place as soon as possible, which will pave the way for further growth in the sector. The UK Space Agency has already announced £2.7 million in support for 13 different early-stage technology projects across England, Scotland, and Wales to support the growing satellite launch sector, and the UK is home to a thriving satellite manufacturing industry.

Virgin Orbit’s flight is expected to be only the beginning of the country’s launch program. Two more spaceports are currently under development: one at the northernmost tip of mainland UK in Sutherland, Scotland, and another in the Shetland Islands, even further north. Unlike Spaceport Cornwall, both will be used for traditional, vertical rocket launches.

Once the Virgin Orbit launch goes ahead, the UK will be the first country in Europe to offer commercial launch services to small satellite manufacturers, and it is expected that the space market in the UK could be worth $1.25 trillion by 2030.

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