UK’ first space launch makes huge step as rocket heads to Britain

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Preparations for the first-ever space launch from British soil have taken a major step forward as a Virgin Orbit rocket, which is expected to blast into the cosmos in November, has embarked on its journey from California to Cornwall. The Launcher One rocket is set to be carried under the wing of Virgin Orbit’s “Cosmic Girl”, the converted Boeing 747 that will make a significant mark in the history books when it takes off from Spaceport Cornwall’s site at Cornwall Airport Newquay. The rocket will be carrying seven payloads (an object that is carried on a rocket and sent into orbit) and will be dispatched into what is called low-Earth orbit on the “Start me up” mission. 

Virgin Orbit tweeted on Thursday: “Update: The rocket has left California. Loaded on a C-17 military aircraft, #LauncherOne is on its way to Newquay, Cornwall to join #CosmicGirl for our #StartMeUp mission later this year at Spaceport Cornwall. Stay tuned for more updates on launch.” 

While the Launcher One has been used in US-based launches, the upcoming November event marks the first time it will ever be used internationally. It is described as a medium-sized rocket, at 21.33metres (70ft) long with an all-carbon composite structure. It is designed to carry small satellites into orbit, and in November it is expected to bring seven, which have a variety of purposes, up into space. 

The 31-tonne rocket will be placed under Cosmic Girl’s wing, the jumbo-jet which will take off at around midnight and then head out to a point over the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest tip of Ireland.

Cosmic Gril will then fly laps in a “racetrack”-shaped flight path while the launch engineers get the rocket ready for ignition and make the final checks before they give a “go” for launch signal and initiate a 16-minute countdown. 

After the countdown, the pilot will detach Launcher One from beneath the wing at about 36,000ft, which will freefall for a few seconds before the plane maneuvers away. The rocket will then ignite and accelerate at up to 22 times the speed of sound, zooming south-southwest over the Atlantic before leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and entering into orbit at a blistering speed of 17,200mph.

The Launcher One will then drop off the package of small satellites as it enters into low-Earth orbit. The modified Boeing 747 will be piloted by flight Lieutenant Mathew ‘Stanny’ Stannard, who will be joined by launch engineers Bryce Schaefer, and Dayle Alexander. 

Sam O’Dwyer, Managing Director, Cornwall Airport Newquay, commented: “We are incredibly proud to be involved in this innovative project to enable space launch from Cornwall Airport Newquay with Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit. 

“The team effort that has gone into developing a spaceport facility to deliver safe and secure space operations for the UK’s first ever space launch has been simply inspiring and I’d like to say a massive well done to my team.”

Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said: “We are now a matter of weeks away from launch and, while the excitement is building, teams on the ground continue to work hard on the preparations. More equipment, including the rocket, will arrive in the coming days and the delicate task of integrating the satellites will begin.

“We have never done this before in the UK, it is a complex and technically challenging endeavour, and I’m confident in the capabilities of our partners at Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall to deliver a successful mission.”

The Government has also hailed the launch plans, which it views as a major indicator of the UK’s burgeoning space sector. New Science Minister Nusrat Ghani said: “As we move ever closer to the first satellite launch from UK soil, it’s excellent to see the progress being made by Virgin Orbit, Spaceport Cornwall and those across government in delivering this historic mission, the first of its kind in Europe.

“With 47,000 jobs across the UK, our growing space industry is a vital part of the economy and has an important role to play in catalysing investment, generating growth and prosperity. I’m looking forward to working with this innovative sector and delivering on our National Space Strategy.”

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The seven satellites that are set to be blasted into orbit will reportedly demonstrate advanced technologies, with a variety of applications ranging from in-space manufacturing of specialist materials, space weather research and satellite positioning, to the prevention of illegal trafficking and smuggling.

Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said: “Seeing Virgin Orbit’s aircraft take off is an exciting reminder that we are close to the first launch from UK soil and first launch of a satellite from Europe.

“This will be an iconic moment in the history of UK space endeavours, so it is fitting that the mission has been named after a song from the Rolling Stones, one of the UK’s most iconic bands.

“Developing new launch capabilities will build on the strengths of our space sector and attract companies from around the world to benefit from these commercial opportunities. This will catalyse investment, bring new jobs to communities and organisations right across the UK, as well as inspiring the next generation of space scientists and engineers.”

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