The first orbital satellite launch from the UK is due to take place at Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay tonight. If successful, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, carrying a payload of nine satellites, will be released from a modified Boeing 747 plane at 35,000 feet off the south coast of Ireland, from where it will continue into low Earth orbit to drop its cargo.
The UK has the second-largest satellite building industry in the world, after the US, but relies on public and private launches in other countries, such as those from NASA or SpaceX, to get its products into orbit. Many hope that success tonight will mark the beginning of an era in which the UK can launch its own satellites on home turf, as well as those from other countries.
“It’s been a long road for us to get here, with lots of international agreements and working with countries like Ireland, Spain and Portugal, who are all involved in managing the airspace,” says Matt Archer, director of the UK space flight programme at the UK Space Agency (UKSA). “There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes.”
It has been a frenetic couple of days in the countdown to the launch in Newquay, with the plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, which has the LauncherOne rocket attached under one wing, submitted to lashings of wind and rain on the runway as the Virgin Orbit team carried out last-minute pre-flight checks. Last week, the set-up passed a “wet dress rehearsal”, in which the entire launch procedure was run through, barring ignition itself.
The team hopes that, even if the weather worsens, the plane should be OK to launch. “The Boeing 747 is a well-proven aircraft. It can take off in very challenging conditions and land back in challenging conditions as well,” says Ian Annett, deputy CEO for programme delivery at UKSA. “Of course, having a rocket underneath its left wing means that you have to be conscious of that, but one of the advantages as well is you can fly above the weather in order to launch [the rocket].”
If the plane gets the green light to launch, it will take off between 9.40pm and 11pm GMT (4.40pm and 6pm EST) and head towards the Irish Sea, where it will drop the rocket about an hour later.
LauncherOne, a rocket that Virgin Orbit has successfully launched four times previously from its facility in the Mojave desert, California, will then start its first-stage burn, which will run for around 20 minutes and accelerate it to about 12,900 kilometres per hour, to initiate its solo journey.
The rocket will then drop its first stage and proceed using the second stage, accelerating to 28,000 kph over about 6 minutes as it passes above Antarctica. It will finally reach its orbital height, of around 500 kilometres, over Australia about an hour after being deployed, where it will release its payload of nine satellites.
The previous rocket launches in California have given the Virgin Orbit team confidence that tonight’s attempt will go smoothly, with the operation of the system being essentially the same, Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, told New Scientist at a pre-launch press conference. The only difference with being in Cornwall rather than the US, he says, is “pasties versus hamburgers”.
The satellites aboard LauncherOne include Welsh company Space Forge’s test satellite – with which it hopes to manufacture materials in orbit – small military communications satellites from the UK Ministry of Defence, a pair of ionospheric monitors in a joint US-UK military collaboration, maritime sensing satellites from Scottish company AAC Clyde Space, a European Space Agency GPS tracker and an imaging satellite jointly launched by Oman and Poland.
Newquay might seem an unlikely place for a satellite launch, but its combination of a long runway, formerly used by the UK’s Royal Air Force, easy access to the sea and a relatively sparse civilian population marked it out as the top choice when the UK government selected it to be the UK’s first spaceport in 2018.
There is excitement in the town, too, both for the launch itself, which hundreds of locals will attend tonight, ferried from shuttle buses in town, and for what the spaceport might bring to the area – which lost out on money from the European Union after Brexit – in terms of jobs and opportunities, such as at the integration facility, which opened last year, where satellites set to be launched are installed in the rocket body.
While tonight’s scheduled launch may be the only one that Cornwall sees this year, the UK government hopes to eventually have a network of spaceports, including a vertical launch facility in Saxa Vord in the Shetland Islands, where it plans to carry out a rocket launch later this year. In 10 years’ time, says Archer, the UKSA hopes to have around 15 launches a year, which will place it on a competitive footing with countries that have more established space launching industries, he says.
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