First launch from the UK
On 9 January 2023, the first ever orbital launch attempt from UK soil took place by Virgin Orbit from Spaceport Cornwall.
Although the rocket reached space, it did not reach the orbit required to enable it to successfully deliver its payloads.
It did, however, demonstrate the UK’s growing satellite launch capability.
What happened during the first launch?
The first launch was attempted from Spaceport Cornwall in the south-west of England on the evening of 9 January 2023. It was what is known as a ‘horizontal launch’.
A specially modified Boeing 747 from Virgin Orbit called Cosmic Girl, with a rocket attached under its wing, took off from Spaceport Cornwall.
In flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed from the wing as planned and began its journey to space.
Unfortunately the rocket was not successful in reaching the required orbit. The plane returned safely to the Spaceport.
The project succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall.
Spaceport Cornwall is situated at Newquay Airport, near the coast of Cornwall. The 747 flew out over the sea and launched its rocket far away from populated areas.
Why launch from the UK?
The UK has a growing space sector, which employs 47,000 people. UK space companies have a strong track record in satellite manufacturing, spacecraft design and data applications. In fact, Glasgow builds more satellites than anywhere outside the United States. Soon we’ll be able to launch them from the UK too.
The UK is also located relatively far north, which means it’s perfect for launching satellites into polar and Sun-synchronous orbits, which go over the north and south poles. These orbits are ideal for satellites that monitor the Earth and provide telecommunications.
With a long coastline and many islands, the UK offers a range of suitable locations for launching rockets safely out over the sea – away from settlements and people.
What benefits will it bring?
Launch services are worth a potential £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the next decade.
UK spaceports will need new skills, supply chains and supporting services, creating high-skilled jobs and opportunities across the country. For example, Spaceport Cornwall and the Centre for Space Technologies expect to create 150 jobs.
Through initiatives such as our LogoLiftOff! and Nanosat Design competitions, the UK Space Agency is also harnessing launch as a platform to encourage young people to pursue STEM subjects in order to help grow the UK’s future space talent pipeline.
Safety and the environment
Safety, security and protection of the environment are top priorities for the UK government.
We have progressive regulations for launch which make it safe for the public and protect the environment, while allowing new technologies to be used as they are developed.
The government is very careful about the impact launches have on the environment and won’t allow launches to happen before a detailed assessment of their environmental effects has been done.
Rocket launches do release some CO2 and other by-products, but they take place infrequently and the satellites being launched bring significant benefits.
Half of the data we need to monitor climate change can only come from satellites – so it’s vital to get them into space.
UK rocket manufacturers are also working to make rocket launches better for the environment, including turning unrecyclable plastic waste and even beeswax into rocket fuel.
The UK has made significant steps forward towards achieving our launch ambitions and further our position as Europe’s most attractive destination for commercial launch activities.
Through the 2021 Space Industry Regulations, our outcome-focused regulatory framework is the most modern space legislation in the world, with a focus on safety and the flexibility to support the pace of innovation.
We have used our strong global partnerships to work with international partners to secure the agreements we need to enable UK launch including with Ireland, Iceland, Portugal, the Faroe Islands and Norway to secure their support for UK launch activities.
The UK remains committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030.
There are several other spaceports currently planned or under construction in the UK. These are in England, Scotland and Wales.