After years of working through a maze of regulatory affairs, Virgin Orbit says it’s finally ready to fly its LauncherOne rocket from the UK.
If all goes well, the modified Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl The aircraft will take off from a spaceport in Cornwall on Monday evening, with a launch opportunity at 17:16 ET (22:16 UTC) over the Atlantic. This “Start Me Up” mission, which will lead to low Earth orbit, will carry satellites from seven customers in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The air launch mission has garnered a lot of attention in the UK as it is being advertised as the nation’s first orbital launch. It will also be the first orbital satellite launch from the UK or Western Europe. However, it will not be a vertical launch from UK soil. Spaceports capable of such launches are under construction in several locations across the country, but likely won’t be ready for an orbital launch later this year. And unlike British launch vehicles that aim to use these spaceports, Virgin Orbit’s technology was designed, built and tested in the United States.
This has not diminished the enthusiasm of supporters of the horizontal launch spaceport in Cornwall.
“I’m confident and focused and ready to deal with whatever comes our way,” Spaceport Cornwall chief Melissa Thorpe said during a news conference with reporters on Sunday. “I’m so excited. The public can’t wait for the UK to come and join this exclusive launch club because it will feel good.”
Thorpe is part of a team that has been working for eight years to add a horizontal launch capability to Spaceport Cornwall, which is located on the site of Newquay Airport, a former Royal Air Force base. During that time, officials from the Cosmodrome, the UK Space Agency and Virgin Orbit have worked to address regulatory concerns about the handling of the rocket in Cornwall and its launch over international waters in south-west Ireland.
Virgin Orbit had hoped to launch the mission in the fall of 2022, but ongoing paperwork issues eventually pushed the mission to early 2023. These delays resulted in Virgin Orbit only being able to launch its LauncherOne rocket twice in 2022.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk when we jumped at this opportunity,” Virgin Orbit chief executive officer Dan Hart said of efforts to obtain a UK launch license.
Officials at Sunday’s press conference expressed hope that this launch will be the first in a regular cadence of Virgin Orbit missions from the UK.
“We’re excited to be here today,” Hart said. “We’re looking forward to the future and maybe coming back later this year to start again and hopefully get a rhythm going. We want to be a part of the space community here in the UK and around the world. That’s our goal as a company and I think there’s a big opportunity.”
However, it is unclear how much of the infrastructure has been flown into Spaceport Cornwall to support this Cosmic Girl Aircraft and LauncherOne refueling operations will remain on site after this mission. It is also unlikely that Virgin Orbit will fly another mission from the UK for at least the next 12 months, if not significantly longer.
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