Virgin Orbit helps launch a new era for UK space industry

Virgin Orbit completes final successful end-to-end rehearsal – all systems currently ‘green’ proceeding toward historic UK Launch at Spaceport Cornwall

The United Kingdom’s orbital launch for the historic Start Me Up mission has been given the green light and could go ahead as planned this evening. However, additional backup dates are in place into late January if British weather means today’s event is postponed. 

The Start Me Up mission - a collaborative effort between the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), Cornwall Council, the Royal Air Force, and Virgin Orbit - will carry satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations and a collaborative US-UK mission.

The LauncherOne system that will conduct the mission is now mated to its carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 dubbed Cosmic Girl, at Spaceport Cornwall. At the weekend, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system successfully completed an end-to-end launch rehearsal.

Given the number of firsts being executed for this launch – the first orbital launch from UK soil or from anywhere in western Europe – Virgin Orbit and its partners will maintain a conservative posture with regard to system health, weather, and all other elements of scheduling.

Spaceport Cornwall received the United Kingdom’s first-ever spaceport license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in November. In December, Virgin Orbit was issued first-of-their-kind launch and range control licenses, which ensured all regulatory, safety, and environmental requirements have been met. The CAA has announced all of the satellites flying on this mission have received their licenses as well.

Launch capabilities already generating growth and jobs

“We are entering a new era for space in the UK with the first ever satellite launch from UK soil and from Europe,” says Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency. “This is a significant landmark for the nation, the UK Space Agency and for all those who have worked so hard over many years to make our ambitions to create a commercial space launch capability a reality.

“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalysing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the United Kingdom. This will lead to new careers, improved productivity and inspire the next generation of space professionals, and this is just the beginning. I look forward to seeing more launches from other UK spaceports over the next year, putting us firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for commercial small satellite launch.”

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO says: “This launch represents the opening of a new era in the British space industry and new partnerships across industry, government, and allies. Space is already responsible for tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, the global industry is growing quickly, and so is the potential. And this launch is demonstrating that with the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne system an airport can become a spaceport that sends humankind’s innovations on their journey.”

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall says: “This is a phenomenal moment with incredible international collaboration. Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency and all of our partners are breaking new ground to transform access to space across the world from right here in Cornwall. My team at Spaceport Cornwall have worked so hard to get this far and we wish everyone the best of luck as the launch window opens, we are ready.”

Tim Johnson, Director for Space Regulation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority says: “Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity, and with public safety at the heart of our decision making, we’ve worked with Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall to assess their applications and issue licences within our expected timeframe, putting the UK framework on a competitive footing with international space regulators.”

Start Me Up will be the fifth consecutive Virgin Orbit launch to carry payloads for both private companies and government agencies. All of the prior 33 satellites were carried by LauncherOne to their precise desired orbit, while demonstrating the ability to fly through and above inclement weather, integrate rapid-call up payloads, and reach a broader range of orbits than would be possible from a traditional ground-launch system.

The satellites' missions span a wide range of activities aimed at improving life on Earth, including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism; and a host of national security functions.

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