The UK Is Rejoining the Space Race

A Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket is being prepared for an upcoming launch at Mojave Air and Space Port, California. Credit: Virgin Orbit

By Jonathan O’Callaghan,
Published by Wired, 23 September 2022

Virgin Orbit will launch satellites from the country for the first time, bringing orbital flight capability to Europe.

As early as next month, a modified Boeing 747 jet will fly from Cornwall, the southwestern tip of the United Kingdom, out over the Atlantic Ocean. Tucked under the wing of this plane will be LauncherOne, a 70-foot-long rocket packed full of satellites. The rocket will be flown to high altitude, dropped, and ignited before flying into space.

This outlandish procedure heralds an exciting new era in British spaceflight. “We feel tremendously honored to have this role—there’s a real joy in doing a launch for the first time from the UK,” says Dan Hart, president and CEO of Virgin Orbit, a US firm that’s part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. This will be the first ever orbital launch conducted from British soil.

Currently set for no earlier than October 29, the launch has been years in the making. The UK is already home to many private space companies, yet holds an odd record of being the only country ever to develop and then abandon the ability to launch satellites into space, after a single successful orbital flight of its Black Arrow rocket from Australia in 1971. In 2014, however, the British government put plans in motion to change that, announcing it would develop commercial spaceports in the UK that could launch rockets and tap into the rapidly growing space market, estimated to be worth $1.25 trillion by 2030.

These will not be large rockets like those used by NASA to launch spacecraft to the moon, or by Russia to fly humans to the International Space Station. Instead they will be relatively modest, designed to take small satellites into space—but filling an interesting gap in rocket launch capability, as there are no active launch sites in Europe right now, large or small.

Spaceport Cornwall is set to be the first in the UK to enter service. The region’s largest airport, Cornwall Airport Newquay, has been repurposed to allow space planes like Virgin Orbit’s jet, called Cosmic Girl, to take off from. While the airport and its 2.7-km 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, while an on-site mission control will be used to conduct the launch. Getting the infrastructure and regulations in place to allow for liftoff has taken considerable time. “It’s been pretty exhausting,” says Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall. “To see it go up will be really emotional.”

The plane and its rocket will be transported from Virgin Orbit’s factory in Long Beach, California, to the UK in the coming weeks. Onboard will be a variety of satellites from seven customers. The exact manifest hasn’t yet been made public, but we know it will include ForgeStar-0, a satellite from the UK firm Space Forge that will test the ability to return useful materials built in space back through Earth’s atmosphere (semiconductors, for example, could be improved by being built in zero gravity). Also onboard will be two small imaging satellites from the UK’s Ministry of Defence, as well as small satellites from Poland and Oman—the latter’s first satellite.

With its horizontal launch technique, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is different from more traditional rockets, which tend to launch vertically from the ground. Having been lofted up to an altitude of 35,000 feet, the rocket will complete its launch from the thinner upper atmosphere and have an easier journey to space. Virgin Orbit has already carried out four successful launches from the Mojave Desert in California, but has touted its ability to conduct launches from any location on Earth.

This launch will take place late at night, after commercial flights have ended at the airport, with many visitors expected to come and witness the historic moment as the plane takes off. “We’re still working on those numbers,” says Thorpe. Cosmic Girl will then fly out over the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles off the Irish coast and out of sight from observers back on land, then enter an oval flight pattern from which the rocket will then be dropped at high altitude one hour into the flight.

The rocket’s engines, fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, will then fire, accelerating it to a speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour and shooting it into orbit in 10 minutes, about 500 kilometers above our planet. Once there, it will deploy its satellites before falling back to Earth and mostly burning up in the atmosphere. Cosmic Girl, meanwhile, will return to Cornwall, with a total flight time of about four hours.

LauncherOne will be assembled in Long Beach before being shipped over. Photograph: Virgin Orbit

The UK makes for a nifty location to launch from. Being an island at a reasonably high latitude means rockets can launch north over uninhabited ocean, entering into orbit from pole to pole around our planet. Such orbits are particularly useful for Earth observation satellites, enabling images of the planet to be taken as it rotates underneath, which can be used to “observe the growth of farmland or for maritime security” among many other applications, says Peter Shaw, a senior lecturer in astronautics from Kingston University in the UK.

Virgin Orbit’s flight is expected to be just the start of the country’s launch prowess. Two more spaceports are currently under development, one at the northernmost tip of mainland UK in Sutherland, Scotland, and another in the Shetland Islands, even further north, off the Scottish coast. Both will be used for more classic vertical rocket launches as soon as next year. Sutherland is set to be the home of Orbex, a UK launch company based out of Forres near the Scottish city of Inverness, while Shetland will see flights from the US firm ABL Space Systems.

Another UK launch company, Edinburgh-based Skyrora, also hopes to reach orbit next year using a mobile launch platform that can be packed into a shipping container and which, it says, could be used from a number of locations. In the coming weeks, the company is expected to conduct a test “hop” into space with a small rocket, which will briefly reach a cosmic altitude of 102 kilometers, via a launch from Iceland.

If these companies are successful, there are riches to be had. With no operational launch site in Europe (sites are being considered in Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere), European space companies, rather than shipping their satellites to the US or other locations, could take a relatively shorter jaunt to the UK. “We’re looking at a fantastic opportunity to be one of the only launching states which can service the European market,” says Shaw. “If we get there first, a lot of the European business will come to us for small satellite launches.”

That not only makes for simpler logistics, but also means satellite operators can book rides on smaller rockets at shorter notice rather than have to wait to hitch a ride on larger rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the US. “You could be waiting up to two or three years before your launch,” says Shaw. Smaller rockets could instead mean launch opportunities are available in weeks. Each UK company will be hoping they can tap into this market. “There’s a real healthy competition,” says Shaw.

Cape Canaveral this will not be—at most there might be a few launches a month from all the UK’s spaceports combined. Yet it is a fascinating time, beginning with Virgin Orbit’s effort this autumn. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off Russian launch capabilities from the West, there is even more of a demand for launch capability in the western hemisphere,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of the space consulting firm Astralytical. “A launch facility in the UK could help alleviate the bottleneck of launches. There is a backlog of demand.”

It is an uncertain period in the UK, with a new government followed almost immediately by the end of the Elizabethan era. Now under the reign of King Charles III, a new age is beginning—one not tied to the confines of Earth. Long in the making, the UK is about to, once again, become a spacefaring nation. “It’s going to be absolutely fantastic,” says Shaw.

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