The UK is set to join an exclusive club of 10 countries capable of launching rockets into orbit when it launches its first satellite payload from Spaceport Cornwall on Monday.
Virgin Orbit is due to make its first UK flight shortly before 10pm, in a historic launch that could open the door to spaceflight from British soil.
Unlike vertical launches, the LauncherOne rocket carrying nine satellites is attached to the wing of a former Virgin Atlantic 747 airliner – dubbed Cosmic Girl.
The plane takes off normally, and at about 35,000 feet, the rocket detaches and launches into space, discharging its payload as it reaches orbit.
This will be the first satellite launch in Europe and thousands of people are expected to flock to Newquay Airport to watch the event.
Currently, only a few countries have the capability to launch into orbit from their home turf: the United States, Russia, India, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Iran and French Guiana for the European Space Agency.
Speaking at a press conference on Sunday before launch, Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “I feel very excited. I can’t wait for the UK to come and join this exclusive launch club because it’s going to be good.”
The Start Me Up mission, named after a Rolling Stones song, was originally supposed to launch last year but ran into months of delays while waiting for a license from the Civil Aviation Authority, which has never done a space launch before.
The team hopes to launch the rocket during the first launch window, which opens at 9:40 p.m. on Monday, but there are five more slots available until January 20 in case the launch is aborted.
Monday’s launch will be Virgin Orbit’s sixth mission, with all previous launches taking place in California’s Mojave Desert.
The rocket has been groomed over the weekend in preparation, and the only thing that can get in the way of a launch is the weather. Virgin said it was watching for crosswinds and lightning and said it was in constant contact with The Met Office.
Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said: “The weather is a little different than Mojave, but otherwise the team turns the keys the same way.
“We’re in full swing right now, getting ready for launch, but that said, if we see anything interesting that we want to stop, stop and look, if there’s winds, precipitation, lightning or anything like that, we need to look very closely.
“We’ll be careful on this flight.” We are in a different airspace than before and our pilots are ready, but we want to make sure we give them every chance of a successful mission.”
The satellites on board the rocket include ForgeStar, the first satellite developed in Wales that can produce computer chips and crystals in a weightless space environment.
Two small CubeSats operated by the UK’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the US Naval Research Laboratory are being sent to monitor space weather.
The rocket also carries Oman’s first-ever orbital mission – an Earth observation satellite – as well as a satellite designed in a garage in Reading that should help catch people smugglers smuggling illegal migrants.
Human spaceflight possible
Although there will be no people on board, Spaceport Cornwall said a manned spaceflight from the UK could be possible in the future.
Ms Thorpe added: “As a spaceport, we’re really interested in human spaceflight and the capabilities of scientists going for microgravity experiments, for example.
“But there’s also a lot going on on the tourist side and putting more people into space to see the curvature of the Earth.
“So I think we’re going to start looking at, you know, possibilities, but right now we’re 100 percent focused on launching a satellite.”
While Virgin Orbit does not take passengers on board, its sister company Virgin Galactic is set to begin space travel later this year.
The satellite launch is the first from British soil, but it is not the first time the UK has launched a satellite. In 1971, the British-built Back Arrow launched from Woomera, Australia, carrying a scientific test satellite named Prospero.
Soon after, the show was canceled.
Virgin said it hoped to schedule a second launch later this year, and the UK space agency said it hoped the launch would open up a new satellite launch industry in the UK.
Mr Hart added: “Space has become such an amazing part of our lives. From the way we communicate, to the way we navigate, to how we understand our world and the heavens beyond.
“But space is coming towards you now. Space is no longer a distant thing that someone else does.”
Ian Annett, Deputy Director General of the UK Space Agency, said: “I am extremely excited, who wouldn’t be thrilled that this is the first time this has been done in Europe.
“We’re building more satellites in the UK than anywhere outside of the US, so we’re kind of on a journey, and that’s helping us on that journey and filling in what I call comprehensive capabilities so you can do everything here.
“Britain is respected as a proven space country.”
The rocket launch will be monitored from Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall.