Spaceport Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl

Virgin Orbit obtains licence for first UK space launch

Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall

Virgin Orbit has been awarded a licence by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to operate the UK’s first space launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport Newquay.

The CAA has announced the news, stating that Virgin Orbit had “taken all reasonable steps to ensure safety risks arising from launch activities are as low as reasonably practicable”.

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.

“Receiving Virgin Orbit’s range and launch licences takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch take-off from UK soil," said Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart, following the announcement. 

The mission was named Start Me Up in tribute to the rock band The Rolling Stones. 

VirginOrbit plane in Spaceport Cornwall

VirginOrbit plane in Spaceport Cornwall / GOV.UK

Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall / GOV.UK

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. 

After the launch, the plane will return to the spaceport, while the rocket will ignite its engine and take multiple small satellites into orbit with a variety of civil and defence applications.

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.

In the past, satellites produced in the UK have needed to be sent to foreign spaceports to get them into space.

LauncherOne rocket

LauncherOne rocket /VirginOrbit

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

The CAA said it awarded the licences within 15 months of receiving evidence from Virgin Orbit about its plans.

In addition to Spaceport Cornwall, the agency is set to review the other six spaceports being developed across Britain, with a view towards fostering the UK's space sector. 

“This is another major milestone in enabling the very first orbital space launch from UK shores, and these licences will assist Virgin Orbit with their final preparations for launch," said CAA director for space regulation Tim Johnson. 

“Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity, and with public safety at the heart of our decision-making we’ve worked with Virgin Orbit to assess their applications and issue licences within our expected timelines.”

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.

“Today we are one step closer to opening the UK’s galactic gateway, with Virgin Orbit receiving an historic first licence to allow the UK’s first ever spaceflight launch," said Transport Secretary Mark Harper.

“The 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.”

Overall, the government has said it hopes  commercial space launches will be worth £3.8bn to the UK economy over the next decade.

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