Britain kicks off the space race with Europe’s first satellite launch from Cornwall

Technicians work on the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket attached to the Cosmic Girl wing of a Boeing 747-400 aircraft before its first UK launch, at Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport in Newquay, Britain, January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Technicians work on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket attached to the wing of a Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl. (Reuters)

The modified Boeing 747 is scheduled to take off from Newquay, Cornwall, on Monday evening for the first ever orbital satellite launch from Western Europe.

The Virgin Orbit mission, which will turn a surfing town into Britain’s first spaceport, begins with a horizontal take-off, with the plane carrying a partial rocket into the sky.

The modified 747 will take off from Spaceport Cornwall before launching the rocket at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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The launch will be a landmark for the UK, marking its entry into the global space launch market.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “What we’ve seen over the past eight years is building excitement towards something very ambitious and different for Cornwall, something that started out as a project that few people really believed in. was ever going to happen.

“I think people have seen here in Cornwall, this little team that lives and breathes this county delivers something amazing.”

Signage at the entrance to Spaceport Cornwall, the UK's first Virgin Orbit LauncherOne launch site, at Newquay Airport in Newquay, Britain January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The entrance to Spaceport Cornwall, where Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is due to launch late on Monday. (Reuters)

Virgin Orbit, co-owned by billionaire Richard Branson, said nine satellites would be deployed to lower earth orbit (LEO) from the LauncherOne rocket.

The new spaceport gives Europe the opportunity to launch small satellites at a critical time after the Ukrainian war cut off access to the Russian Soyuz vehicles.

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The conflict has highlighted the importance for tactical military targeting of smaller satellites, such as those launched from Newquay, which can reach low orbit in much less time than larger ones.

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said the satellites – which are the size of boxes of cereal – will fulfill tasks such as marine surveys and detection of illegal fishing and piracy, as well as national security.

“We can all personally connect to one or more of the satellites that fly this mission,” he said.

A replica Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket sits in the media area ahead of the UK's first launch at Newquay Airport in Newquay, Britain January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne replica rocket in Newquay, Cornwall. (Reuters)

When asked what the biggest difference was between the Cornwall and California launches, he quipped, “Pastas versus burgers, that’s a significant change.”

The plane, named Cosmic Girl, is expected to take off at some point between 9:40 PM and 11:00 PM, but this depends on the weather and “system health”.

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Virgin Orbit said backup dates are available for later in January.

“Assuming everything still looks good, we are currently tracking the launch well,” a Virgin Orbit spokeswoman said on Sunday.

Space enthusiasts with tickets to the launch, which is titled “Start Me Up” after a Rolling Stones song, will watch from the viewing area across the runway before attention shifts to the live broadcast on the big screen.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, Deputy Director General of the UK Space Agency Ian Annett and Cornwall Spaceport Chief Melissa Thorpe attend a press conference at Newquay Airport ahead of the UK's first Virgin Orbit LauncherOne launch, in Newquay, UK on January 8 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit; Ian Annett, Vice-President of the British Space Agency; and Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, at a press conference at Newquay Airport on Sunday. (Reuters)

Virgin Orbit’s focus on LEO satellites is at the other end of the scale from large satellites in geostationary orbit that are launched by vertical rockets.

The LEO sector is growing rapidly, driven by satellite broadband companies such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, Amazon and London-based OneWeb.

Smaller satellites are also being used for climate change, urban development and security purposes, and the UK hopes the new spaceport will boost its space economy.

The country has a large space industry, employing 47,000 people, who build more satellites than anywhere outside the US, but those had to travel to spaceports in the US, French Guiana or Kazakhstan before they could get into orbit.

Watch: Virgin Orbit prepares for Britain’s first-ever space launch

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