SEATTLE – Virgin Orbit is set to conduct its first orbital launch from the UK on January 9, a milestone that officials hailed as the start of a new era for the country’s space industry.
At a briefing held at Spaceport Cornwall in south-west England on January 8, Virgin Orbit said final preparations were underway for its “Start Me Up” mission, which is due to launch from the spaceport at 5:16 p.m. EST on January 9. Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft will fly to its drop-off point off Ireland’s south coast and launch its LauncherOne rocket about an hour after take-off.
Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, said at a briefing that the company continued to monitor the vehicle and the weather, but did not mention any specific issue that could delay the launch.
“At the moment everything is green,” he said. “We’ll be careful on this flight.” We’re in a different airspace than before. Our pilots are ready, but we want to make sure we give them every chance of a successful mission.”
The Start Me Up mission will place nine payloads into Sun-synchronous orbit for government and commercial customers. These include the British Ministry of Defence, the US Naval Research Laboratory, the Polish manufacturer of SatRevolution satellites, the British companies Horizon Technologies and Space Forge, and the government of Oman. The National Reconnaissance Office ordered the launch as an order for a streamlined launch deal it has with the company.
The launch is the sixth for Virgin Orbit, with the previous five launched from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. “From the way the system works, it’s basically the same,” Hart said of the Cornwall versus Mojave performance. “Slightly different weather than Mojave, but otherwise the team spins the keys the same way.”
The launch will be the first orbital launch from British soil, which the British government is announcing as a key step in the development of the country’s space industry. “We’re absolutely fantastic at designing and building satellites,” said Ian Arnett, Deputy Director General of the UK Space Agency. He said the UK launches “fulfill this comprehensive capacity”.
Operating the Virgin Orbit air-launch system required only minor changes at Cornwall Airport Newquay, home to Spaceport Cornwall. “We could potentially launch the day after we were announced from an infrastructure standpoint,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall.
She said the spaceport had made some investments to “keep it future proof”. This included building a satellite integration facility that other companies can use when Virgin Orbit is not operating there. Soon, another building will open next to it, which will host other space companies. “It’s full, and we haven’t even opened it yet.” People are so excited.”
Spaceport Cornwall is one of several launch sites proposed or under development in the UK, including Space Hub Sutherland in northern Scotland, where Orbex and SaxaVord Spaceport in Shetland will host launches from companies such as ABL Space Systems and Skyrora.
Arnett said he was not concerned that there could be an oversupply of UK launch facilities. “The market is changing fast. There is a great demand for micro launchers to put small satellites into low Earth orbit,” he said. “There is more than enough demand signal we can respond to.”
“We can show that we will be the main launch operator in Europe,” said Virgin Orbit about the upcoming launch. “It’s not one shot and then walk away again. We need to make sure we can work together and show that we can launch the right missions and be competitive.”
Hart said Virgin Orbit expects to fly again from Cornwall after the Start Me Up mission, but hinted that the next launch from the spaceport could be pushed back to 2024. “We’d love to go back before the end of the year if we could,” he said. not sure if that will happen, but it’s not out of the question.”
When Virgin Orbit returns to Cornwall will depend on payloads wanting to launch from there, Hart said. “It starts with the payload, but in collaboration with the UK Space Agency and the rest of the community, a lot of ideas come up. We’d like to start a rhythm.”
Virgin Orbit did not disclose its plans for a 2023 launch beyond its Start Me Up mission, but management said in a November earnings call it wanted to at least double its launch rate in 2022. The company at the time of the call expected to conduct three launches in 2022. but ended the year with just two. In early 2022, the company envisaged six launches per year, two of them from Spaceport Cornwall.