The historic rocket mission in Cornwall has begun

Jumbo and rocket

Jumbo will take the rocket to an altitude of 35,000 feet

The first ever orbital space launch from British soil is getting ready for launch.

On Monday’s mission, a repurposed 747 jumbo jet will launch a rocket over the Atlantic to take nine satellites high above the Earth.

The starting point for operations is Newquay Airport in Cornwall, after 2100 GMT on Monday evening.

If successful, it will be a milestone for British space, marking the birth of an indigenous launch industry.

“What we’ve seen over the last eight years is excitement building towards something very ambitious and different for Cornwall, something that started as a project that few people really believed would ever happen,” said Melissa Thorpe. who runs Spaceport Cornwall.

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


Aircraft and shipping have been asked to stay away from the runway

This first orbital expedition from UK territory actually uses the American company Virgin Orbit, founded by Sir Richard Branson.

A British entrepreneur converted one of his old airliners into a rocket called LauncherOne under the left wing.

When the 747 leaves Newquay, it will head west over the Atlantic to a designated launch zone just off the coast of Irish counties Kerry and Cork.

At the right moment and at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the Virgin jet will launch its rocket, which will then ignite the first stage engine to begin its ascent into orbit.

The BBC has been given a rare glimpse inside Virgin Orbit’s launch vehicle, called Space Girl.

On the lower deck, everything has been stripped down to save weight, as a fully fueled rocket is a heavy load.

Upstairs, two flight engineers will sit at the consoles to monitor the launch. The cockpit remains largely unchanged, however, except for the addition of a small red button that releases the rocket when pressed.

Mathew “Stanny” Stannard, an RAF Squadron Leader, is seconded to Virgin Orbit and will be the lead pilot, seated in the left seat.

“We will monitor the rocket, making sure it is healthy until the very end,” he explained.

“And then we enter the so-called terminal counting procedure. At this point, things certainly get more interesting for us as we go through the sequence of pressurizing the tank and cooling down the hoses.

“And at the end of the terminal count, my job is to make sure the plane is in the right place in the sky, in the right position, so when the rocket says ‘I’m ready to fly,’ it takes off. “


Two satellites, called Prometheus-2, will test new radio and imaging technologies

So far, Virgin Orbit, based in Long Beach, California, has conducted four successful rocket launches over the Pacific Ocean in a row. Flights began from Mojave Air and Space Port, north of Los Angeles,

For the UK mission, the team moved to Cornwall to set up new mission control.

Deenah Sanchez, launch director, says it will be a complicated operation.

“We basically have three different launch systems there,” she told BBC News.

“We have our ground equipment, we have all the plane and the rocket, so we have people who specialize in each area here in the control room.”

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart joked that aside from Cornish patties and American burgers, there wasn’t much difference in how his team would operate on a flight to the UK. “[It’s] slightly different weather than Mojave, but otherwise the team turns the keys the same way,” he said.

Newquay Airport

A corner of Newquay Airport has been earmarked for Spaceport Cornwall operations

If the launch goes as planned, nine small satellites will be launched into orbit more than 500 km above the planet.

They have a variety of civil and military applications, from ocean monitoring to navigation technology.

One of the shoebox-sized satellites belongs to Space Forge, Cardiff. The company wants to use satellites to produce novel, valuable materials and components in space.

Josh Western, CEO of Space Forge, said: “For the first time, the UK has all the pieces of the puzzle to be able to design and develop satellites, launch them from the UK and operate them from the UK.”

There is much hope for this rocket, and its mission is just the beginning of Britain’s future space strategy.

In addition to the burgeoning satellite industry, Scottish companies Skyrora and Orbex are at the forefront of building more traditional vertical launch systems – rockets launched straight from the ground.

These vehicles will run from Shetland and Sutherland in the far north of the country, possibly by the end of 2023.

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