Opening of Spaceport Cornwall

The UK grants first-ever spaceport licence

Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall

Spaceport Cornwall has been awarded an operating licence, enabling it to host the UK’s first space launch.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has confirmed that Spaceport Cornwall, in Newquay, can be used for sending satellites into space, paving the way for the launch of the LauncherOne rocket into space. 

The launch will see Virgin Orbit’s jumbo, known as Cosmic Girl, carrying LauncherOne, to an altitude of approximately 35,000ft (10km) and then dropping it. Once released into the atmosphere, the LauncherOne rocket will accelerate to 8,000mph (12,875km/h) before deploying seven satellites into orbit with a variety of civil and defence applications.

The jumbo – a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft – recently travelled from California in the US to Spaceport Cornwall, and is expected to lift off in the coming weeks. 

CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty described the awarding of the first spaceport licence in the UK as “a historic moment”.

“We’re proud to be playing our part in facilitating the UK’s space ambitions through assessing the safety, security and other requirements of these activities," he said. "This is another major milestone to enable this country to become a leading launch nation.”

The mission has been given the title Start Me Up in tribute to The Rolling Stones.

VirginOrbit plane in Spaceport Cornwall

VirginOrbit plane in Spaceport Cornwall / GOV.UK

Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall / GOV.UK

The licence means Cornwall now boasts the first operating spaceport in the UK, after the facility demonstrated to the regulator it has met the appropriate safety, security, environment and other aspects to carry out rocket launches. 

The authority said it was in "very advanced stages" with Virgin Orbit on other applications for launch and range licences, as well as discussions with the satellite operators.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper, who was required to give consent to the regulator to issue the licence, said the “cosmic cornerstone is being laid for the UK’s first orbital space launch”.

“Virgin Orbit’s planned launch reinforces our position as a leading space nation as we look to the future of spaceflight, which can spur growth and innovation across the sector, as well as creating thousands of jobs and apprenticeships,” he said. 

The Start Me Up mission satellites include a prototype orbiting factory for making high-value alloys and semiconductors, constructed on a Welsh business park by Space Forge, and the IOD-3 Amber, designed by Horizon Technologies, which will form part of a constellation of satellites monitoring illegal fishing, smuggling, trafficking, piracy and terrorism.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, told BBC Radio Cornwall: "Our licence allows Virgin Orbit to undertake some mission readiness so over the next couple of days we will be doing some major rehearsals for their systems on-site.

"Once we make sure everything is OK, the rocket is good to go, we can look at a launch in the next couple of weeks."

The LauncherOne rocket

The LauncherOne rocket /Virgin Orbit

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

Spaceport Cornwall is one of seven spaceports being developed across Britain. The four other proposed spaceports in Scotland are set to be located in the A’ Mhòine peninsula in Sutherland, Prestwick in South Ayrshire, Campbeltown in Argyll and Bute, and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

The first vertical space launch is expected to take place next year from the planned SaxaVord Spaceport on Unst in Shetland and another spaceport has been planned at Llanbedr, Gwynedd, in North Wales.

However, there has been growing concern over the past few weeks, regarding the long time it was taking for authorities to issue the licences that would allow the first launch of satellites from UK soil. 

This latest licence adds to nearly 150 satellite licences already approved by the UK CAA since becoming the UK’s space regulator in July 2021. Overall, the growing space industry is estimated to be worth £16.5bn and support 47,000 jobs, with 2,500 apprentices opening the sector up to even more people, according to government figures. 

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles