The countdown to Britain’s first ever orbital space launch is officially on. A modified Boeing 747 jet is set to arrive in the UK within weeks, as Spaceport Cornwall gears up to host the historic maiden flight on British soil.

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As early as next month, Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl plane will take off from Newquay with a 70-foot-long rocket packed full of satellites, which will then be flown to high altitude, dropped, and ignited before flying into space.

It will be a momentous occasion, with the UK finally joining the space race some 70 years after the British Space Programme was established in 1952.

Not only that, but it will come 50 years after a British-made rocket, Black Arrow, last reached space following its lift-off from Australia.

The Soviet Union was the first nation to carry out a successful space launch, with Sputnik 1 in October 1957, before the United States, Japan, France, China, India, Israel and Iran all followed.

North Korea achieved the feat in 2012, along with South Korea earlier this year, so Britain would be the 11th nation to carry out a space launch on its own soil.

Spaceport Cornwall will be the first such hub in the UK to enter service when the repurposed Newquay Airport hosts the space plane lift-off at night, after all the commercial flights have ended.

It is sure to draw flocks of crowds as Sir Richard Branson’s company launches two shoebox-sized satellites on behalf of the UK government on a rocket called LauncherOne.

Once deployed, they will deliver high-tech imaging sensors, allowing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to monitor Earth and its oceans.

The Cornwall horizontal launch site is one of three spaceports in the UK that aim to start satellite launches in 2022, but is expected to beat its two Scottish rivals to seal the title as the host location of the first satellite launch from British soil.

Getting the infrastructure and regulations in place to allow for liftoff from Newquay has taken considerable time, but while the airport and its 1.6 mile-long (2.7km) runway look the same, a new building will allow Virgin Orbit to load satellites into its rocket and then attach it to the wing of its plane.

An on-site mission control will also be used to carry out the launch.

Although October 29 is when the window for lift-off opens, the mission has still not received the green light from the Civil Aviation Authority – which regulates Britain’s rocket launches – so November, or possibly December, seems more likely for the first flight.

2. United States – 1 February 1958

3. Japan – 11 February 1970

4. France* – 10 March 1970

(From the French territory, French Guiana)

5. China – 24 April 1970

6. India – 18 July 1980

7. Israel – 19 September 1988

8. Iran – 2 February 2009

9. North Korea – 12 December 2012

10 South Korea – 21 June 2022

11. United Kingdom – ?

The plane and its rocket will be transported from Virgin Orbit’s factory in Long Beach, California, to the UK in the coming weeks.

Virgin Orbit will then send the UK government’s two cubesats – measuring about 12 inches long, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep – into space along with eight other payloads as part of a mission named Prometheus-2.

Built by In-Space Missions Ltd, based in Hampshire, and designed with Airbus Defence and Space, Prometheus-2 is a collaboration between MoD and international partners, including the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

‘Space technology is crucial for developing Defence capabilities,’ said Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin.

‘The launch of Prometheus-2 represents another important step forward for our homegrown space programme.

‘This collaboration with In-Space Missions and Airbus paves the way for the UK to become a more resilient, more robust and more significant global space entity.’

‘Cubesat 1’ and ‘Cubesat 2’ will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals including GPS and sophisticated imaging.

Cubesat 1 includes a laser detector, a GPS receiver and a hyperspectral imager – which can capture multiple slivers of pictures over different wavelengths of light.

Cubesat 2, meanwhile, includes two optical imaging cameras, a laser range finder, and a GPS receiver.

The cubesats will allow MOD to better understand how the UK and its international partners can work together to create a ‘more capable and flexible system’ at a lower cost.

Technology on board the cubesats will enable MOD to identify new techniques and algorithms for operating satellites and data processing, it said.

The upcoming Cornwall launch will involve Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne, a two-stage orbital launch vehicle tucked into Cosmic Girl’s belly.

Once Cosmic Girl is at a high enough altitude – around 35,000 feet – LauncherOne is unleashed.

When at an orbital altitude, LauncherOne deploys the satellites, which will be catapulted into orbit at 8,000 miles per hour.

Virgin Orbit has already conducted three successful consecutive orbital missions with LauncherOne in 2021 and 2022, the last one in January.


1952: British space programme adopted

1962: First British-built satellite is launched (by NASA from Cape Canaveral, Florida)

1971: British rocket Black Arrow puts a single British satellite, Prospero, into orbit from a launch site in Australia

1975: 10 nations including the UK founds the European Space Agency

1985: British National Space Centre in Leicester is founded

1991: Sheffield-born chemist Helen Sharman becomes the first British person in space

2003: Beagle 2 British Mars lander launched

2004: Sir Richard Branson forms private company Virgin Galactic

2016: Tim Peake becomes the first British person to walk in space

2018: Space Industry Act paves the way for construction of UK spaceports

2022: Three UK spaceports – one in Cornwall and two in Scotland – are expected to become operational

However, all three took place from Mojave Air and Space Port, California, and so the first one from British soil is generating considerable interest.

Over the last 16 months since January 2021, LauncherOne has already deployed payloads in space for Virgin Orbit’s customers, including NASA and the US Department of Defense.

Virgin Orbit has also revealed that it will acquire two more modified Boeing 747 aircraft to expand its operations in the US.

The new craft will help ‘meet US national security and its allies’ launch demands, Virgin Orbit said.

Virgin Orbit is a company within the Virgin Group, the conglomerate founded by Richard Branson in 1970.

It was formed in 2017 to develop the air-launched LauncherOne rocket, launched from Cosmic Girl — which had previously been a project of Virgin Galactic.

In June last year, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive Dan Hart told MailOnline that Spaceport Cornwall could be used to send probes to Mars, Venus and the moon within the next three or four years.

‘Lunar missions and smaller craft bound for Venus and Mars could be launched [from Spaceport Cornwall] within the next three or four years,’ he said.

‘We’re not going to launch a Perseverance rover (currently being used by NASA to search for signs of ancient life on Mars), for example, but smaller interplanetary probes that explore or carry out landing missions are a possibility.’

However, despite there being talk the Cornish site could one day launch fee-paying space tourists on suborbital pleasure flights, the Virgin Orbit chief said human spaceflight was ‘not currently part of the company’s plans’ for the facility.

Nevertheless, Mr Hart said he envisioned the spaceport having a Cape Canaveral-like effect on the Cornish community, with people knowing when a launch is coming and being inspired that their friends and neighbours have worked on it.

Spaceport Cornwall’s development is expected to create around 150 jobs and allow the UK to compete in the global market for deploying small satellites into Earth orbit — an industry expected to be worth £3.9 billion by 2030, which Branson is hoping to tap into.

Also joining Britain’s space race is Space Hub Sutherland, which will host the launch of a 62-foot tall environmentally-friendly rocket called Prime later this year.

This is designed to be reusable and not leave debris on land, the oceans or in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the third UK spaceport, SaxaVord Spaceport based at Unst in the Shetland Islands, has also unveiled plans to provide launch services for customers sometime this year.

Space Hub Sutherland and SaxaVord Spaceport are vertical spaceports, meaning they perform more conventional ground launches with a rocket, while Cornwall is horizontal.

This means it uses a carrier aircraft, such as a Boeing 747, for launches before deploying rockets when the aircraft is airborne.


TAKE OFF Cosmic Girl, an adapted Boeing 747, takes off from an air and space port, initially in California.

ROCKET DEPLOYMENT At cruising altitude around 35,000 feet, the chief pilot hits the Big Red Button that releases the rocket from the pylon.

FIRST STAGE BURN After a 4-second freefall, the first stage engine, NewtonThree, bursts to life, accelerating the rocket to more than 8,000 miles per hour. Once its fuel is spent, the first stage detaches.

FAIRING SEPARATION With LauncherOne now between 310 to 745 miles above the Earth’s surface, the fairing pops open, exposing the payload as it nears its destination.

SATELLITE DEPLOYMENT Finally, with very precise timing, the second stage ejects the satellite into its final orbit.

RETURN TO EARTH Atmospheric drag will eventually pull the second stage back down to Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere, minimising environmental footprint.

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UK Space News Team @ TheRocketRange.com

UK Space News Team @ TheRocketRange.com

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