Britain to join space race with first rocket launch from home soil

LauncherOne
LauncherOne

Britain is set to join an exclusive club of 10 countries capable of launching rockets into orbit when it sends up the first satellite payload from Spaceport Cornwall on Monday.

Virgin Orbit is scheduled to make its first UK flight shortly before 10pm, in a historic lift-off that could open the door to human spaceflight from British soil.

Unlike vertical launches, the LauncherOne rocket containing nine satellites is attached to a wing of a former Virgin Atlantic 747 passenger plane – dubbed Cosmic Girl.

The plane takes off as normal, and at around 35,000ft the rocket detaches and launches into space, discharging its cargo when it reaches orbit.

It will be the first time that a satellite launch has occurred in Europe, and thousands of people are expected to travel to Newquay Airport to watch the event.

Currently, only a handful of countries have the capability of launching into orbit from home turf: the US, Russia, India, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Iran and French Guiana for The European Space Agency.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday ahead of the launch, Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “I just feel so excited. I cannot wait for the UK to come and join that exclusive launch club because it’s gonna feel good.”

Melissa Thorpe - Bloomberg
Melissa Thorpe – Bloomberg

The Start Me Up mission, named after the Rolling Stones song, was initially hoping to launch last year, but has faced months of delays waiting to get a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority, which had never dealt with a space launch until now.

The team is hoping to get the rocket away during the first launch window, which opens for an hour at 9.40pm on Monday, but five more windows are available up to January 20 in case of an aborted lift-off.

Monday’s launch will be Virgin Orbit’s sixth mission, with all previous launches taking place from the Mojave Desert in California.

The rocket was fuelled readied over the weekend in preparation, and the only thing that could scupper the launch is the weather. Virgin said it was keeping an eye on cross-winds and lightning and said it was in regular contact with The Met Office.

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said: “The weather is a little bit different to Mojave, but otherwise the team is turning the wrenches in the same way.

“We’re in full motion right now, gearing towards the launch, but that said if we see anything interesting that we want to stop and pause and look at, if winds or precipitation or lightning or something like that is in the area, we will look very closely.

“We’re going to proceed cautiously on this flight. We’re in different airspace than we’ve flown before and our pilots are ready, but we want to make sure we give them every opportunity for a successful mission.”

Satellites on board the rocket include ForgeStar, the first satellite developed in Wales, which can make computer chips and crystals in the weightless environment of space.

Two small CubeSats operated by the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory  and the US Naval Research Laboratory are being sent up to monitor space weather.

The rocket also contains Oman’s first ever orbital mission – an Earth observation satellite – as well as a satellite designed in a Reading garage which should help pick up people smugglers illegally trafficking migrants.

Human spaceflight a possibility

Although there will be no people on board, Spaceport Cornwall said the human spaceflight from Britain could be a possibility in the future.

Mrs Thorpe added: “As a spaceport, we’re really interested in human spaceflight and the opportunities with researchers going up for microgravity experiments, for instance.

“But there’s a lot going on in the tourism side of it as well and putting more humans into space to see the curvature of the Earth.

“So I think we’ll start to look at, you know, the opportunities in that but we’re 100 per cent focussed on the satellite launch at the moment.”

Although Virgin Orbit does not take human passengers, its sister company Virgin Galactic is expected to start space tourism trips later this year.

The satellite launch is the first from British soil, but it is not the first time Britain has launched a satellite. In 1971, the British built Back Arrow took off from Woomera in Australia carrying a scientific test satellite named Prospero.

The programme was cancelled soon afterwards.

Cornish space port
Cornish space port

Virgin said it was hoping to schedule a second launch later in the year, and the UK Space Agency said it was hoping the lift-off would open up a new industry of satellite launches in Britain.

Mr Hart added: “Space has become such an incredible part of our life. From the way we communicate to the way we navigate to how we understand our world, and the heavens, beyond.

“But space is now coming to you. Space is not a far away thing that somebody else does any more.”

Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “I am immensely excited, who would not be excited by the fact this is the first time it has been done in Europe.

“We build more satellites in the UK than anywhere outside of the US and so we’re kind of on a journey and this helps us with that journey and fills that what I call that end to end capability so you can do everything here.

“The UK is respected as a proven space nation.”

The rocket launch will be monitored from the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall.

Published by anthonyhayble

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