Virgin Orbit to carry out first UK launch next week


The UK’s first orbital launch is expected to take place on Monday night from Spaceport Cornwall by Virgin Orbit.

The launch window for the Start Me Up mission opens on Monday, 9 January at 22:16 UTC with backup dates in mid and late January.

As well as being the first orbital launch from the UK, Start Me Up, which is named after the Rolling Stones song, will be the first international launch for Virgin Orbit and the first commercial launch from western Europe.

The mission will carry satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several countries and a collaborative US-UK mission.

The LauncherOne system that will conduct the mission is now mated to its carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, at Spaceport Cornwall.

This week engineers successfully completed an end-to-end launch rehearsal. This takes the integrated system through the loading of propellants and terminal count, and verifies the health of the system and the readiness of the team.

LauncherOne is an air-launch system, which instead of using a launch pad uses a large aircraft to carry a rocket to a high altitude and then launches it. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is a 70ft long, 57,000 lb (25,800kg) rocket designed to travel at speeds of up to 20 times the speed of sound (17,000mph) that can carry small satellites, such as communications and weather satellites of up to 660 lbs (300kg).

Virgin Orbit’s launch system can be transported to different sites. The system has carried out four successful launches so far.

The Richard Branson-owned Virgin Orbit is a sister company to Virgin Galactic, which uses the same air-launch approach to launch a passenger-carrying space plane from a site in the Mojave Desert in the USA.

The Start Me Up mission also involves the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), Cornwall Council and the Royal Air Force. Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency said, “We are entering a new era for space in the UK with the first ever satellite launch from UK soil and from Europe. This will lead to new careers, improved productivity and inspire the next generation of space professionals.

“I look forward to seeing more launches from other UK spaceports over the next year, putting us firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for commercial small satellite launch.”

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO said, “This launch represents the opening of a new era in the British space industry and new partnerships across industry, government, and allies. Space is already responsible for tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, the global industry is growing quickly, and so is the potential.

“This launch is also demonstrating that with the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne system an airport can become a spaceport that sends humankind’s innovations on their journey.”

Spaceport Cornwall received the UK’s first-ever spaceport license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in November. Virgin Orbit was issued first-of-their-kind launch and range control licenses in late December, which ensured all regulatory, safety, and environmental requirements have been met. The CAA licensed the satellites to fly on the mission earlier this week.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, while LauncherOne can be used from any airport with a runway long enough to handle a Boeing 747.

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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