Virgin Orbit ready for historic UK launch after spaceport secures license
Spaceport Cornwall received a license from the U.K. national regulator, clearing the way for the first orbital launch from British soil.
Spaceport Cornwall received a license from a U.K. regulator and is now ready to host a Virgin Orbit launch.(Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall)
A U.K. spaceport that will host the first Virgin Orbit launch from non-American soil has received a license from the U.K. national regulator, clearing the way for what will be the first ever European orbital liftoff.
Spaceport Cornwall, a converted airport in the southwest of England, is now all set for what will be the first orbital launch from the U.K. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority issued a spaceport license to the airport, in Newquay on the British west coast, on Wednesday (Nov. 16) after the airport demonstrated compliance with "statutory requirements on safety, security, environment and other aspects," the U.K. Space Agency said in a statement(opens in new tab).
The spaceport is now ready to conduct horizontal space launches — launches that use aircraft as a first stage and release a small rocket above the thickest layer of Earth's atmosphere.
Virgin Orbit will now start the "wet dress" rehearsal ahead of the hotly anticipated launch, which represents the first step in the U.K.'s ambition to build a reputation as a go-to site for small-satellite launches.
Virgin Orbit has previously performed four successful flights from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California, which combined delivered dozens of small satellites into low Earth orbit for a variety of customers.
During the coming wet dress rehearsal, the company will perform the entire pre-launch procedure including fueling and countdown, minus only the actual takeoff and launch.
"The first-ever spaceport license granted by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority is another major milestone as we look forward to the first satellite launch from U.K. soil this year," Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the U.K. Space Agency, said in the statement. "Getting to this stage is a testament to the hard work from partners across government and industry to make our launch ambitions a reality, and we are now tantalizingly close."
"To be the first spaceport in the U.K. with a license to operate is a historic moment," Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said in the statement. "Cornwall is now ready to open up the use of space for good, and support the U.K. industry in harnessing the power of space to benefit life on Earth."
The U.K. has ambitions to become a major player in the small satellite launch market. Two other sites are now waiting for approval to launch small vertical rockets, one located on the northern coast of Scotland and the other on the Shetland Islands off the Scottish coast. Two U.K.-based companies, Orbex and Skyrora, are currently finalizing developments of their small satellite launchers, hoping to perform debut flights next year.
Virgin Orbit: Date set for historic Cornwall rocket launch
The first ever orbital space launch from the UK is expected to take place on the night of Wednesday 14 December.
Entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit company will run the mission out of Newquay, Cornwall.
It will see a repurposed 747 release a rocket over the Atlantic to take nine satellites high above the Earth.
The date is provisional. Virgin Orbit still needs a licence from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Any launch must have the regulator's approval.
The zone of operation will be just off the coast of Ireland. The rocket will head south, past Portugal, as it makes its ascent.
Official notifications have been posted to aircraft and mariners, warning them of the activity.
The mission is timed to occur within a two-hour window, starting at 22:16 GMT, with the scheduled moment of launch expected at 23:45 GMT.
If the launch day is delayed or the operation is scrubbed mid-air for some reason, there should be the opportunity to try again later in the week.
Virgin Orbit's 747, Cosmic Girl, sits on the apron at Newquay Airport
The mission will be a historic moment for the UK, as it seeks to turn itself into a hub for the launch of small-sized European satellites.
Virgin Orbit chief pilot Mathew "Stanny" Stannard, on secondment from the RAF, will be at the controls of the 747, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, on the night.
"There's a huge amount of pride that I get to be involved in this," he told BBC News.
"It's a big deal for the UK. It's a big deal for Cornwall. And the idea that I get to be the pilot on this mission is incredible."
Cornwall Airport Newquay, home of Spaceport Cornwall, received its operational licence from the Civil Aviation Authority last month.
As soon as Virgin Orbit gets the regulator's approval, the mission is "Go!".
One of the final acts of preparation is for Virgin Orbit to conduct a fuelling rehearsal for the rocket, called LauncherOne. This is likely to take place in the next few days.