Aerospace & Defence

First ever UK space launch could lift off next week

6th January 2023
Kiera Sowery

A bold new era for the UK space industry could start next week after partners announced the opening of the window for the first ever space launch from British soil.

The initial window for the historic Start Me Up mission will open on Monday 9 January at 10.16pm, with additional back-up dates continuing into mid- and late January. The mission is a collaboration between the UK Space Agency, Cornwall Council, the Royal Air Force, and Virgin Orbit.

The LauncherOne rocket is now connected to the modified Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft that will carry it towards space before releasing it.

A complete end-to-end launch rehearsal was successfully completed at Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay yesterday (5 January), taking the integrated LauncherOne system through to the loading of propellants and terminal count, verifying the health of the system and readiness of the team.

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

Despite the announcement, there is still some caution amongst the partners due to the historic nature of the mission. “Given the number of ‘firsts’ being executed for this launch – the first orbital launch from UK soil or from anywhere in western Europe – Virgin Orbit and its partners will maintain a conservative posture with regard to system health, weather, and all other elements of scheduling,” a Virgin Orbit announcement said.

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 is a significant landmark for the nation, the UK Space Agency and for all those who have worked so hard over many years to make our ambitions to create a commercial space launch capability a reality.  

“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalysing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the United Kingdom. This will lead to new careers, improved productivity and inspire the next generation of space professionals, and this is just the beginning. 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 CEO, said: “After ensuring that every technical aspect is sound and every regulation and code has been satisfied, it is gratifying to see this historic endeavour on the verge of coming to fruition.

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

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “This is a phenomenal moment with incredible international collaboration. Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency and all of our partners are breaking new ground to transform access to space across the world from right here in Cornwall. My team at Spaceport Cornwall have worked so hard to get this far and we wish everyone the best of luck as the launch window opens, we are ready.”

Spaceport Cornwall received the UK’s first-ever spaceport licence from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in November. In late December, Virgin Orbit was issued first-of-their-kind launch and range control licences, which ensured all regulatory, safety, and environmental requirements have been met. This week, the CAA announced that all of the satellites flying on the mission have also received their licences.

The satellite missions span a wide range of activities, including reducing the environmental impact of production, preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism, and other national security functions.

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