The small group of nations to have sent rockets into the sky from their own soil is about to gain a new member as Britain makes its first-ever launch from a seaside town better known for surfing and sandy beaches than space adventures.
The mission will take off from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, southwest England, the first of a clutch of bases through which the UK aims to establish itself as a major player in the sector amid surging demand for launch capacity.
The flight, slated for late Monday, involves a so-called horizontal launch, with a rocket deployed from beneath a modified Boeing Co. 747 jet departing from Newquay’s former air force runway. Two Scottish bases are meanwhile committed to Cape Canaveral-style vertical blastoffs by the end of the year, while three other UK sites are seeking the go-ahead for horizontal launches.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc. business will fly the Cornish mission, says the event represents a breakthrough for the space program in Europe and the UK in particular.
“It’s a milestone,” the billionaire said in an interview. “You’ve never before had a launch from Europe. And it’s nice that the UK will be the first place in Europe to put rockets and satellites into space. I’m very supportive of that.”
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said the Virgin Orbit launch will mark a “phenomenal moment” for a project that began life as a bid to bolster business at Newquay airport after the Royal Air Force ended flights from its runway 15 years ago, and which remains owned by the local council.
Britain’s push into spaceports comes half a century after it abandoned a push to establish an independent launch capability. Fewer than 10 nations currently send satellites into orbit from their home soil, and there are no such sites in Western Europe, with the European Space Agency using the Guiana Space Centre in South America for its missions.
Spurring the UK plan is a surge in the deployment of small satellites amid the drive to create new mega constellations for broadband communications. Global launches have increased threefold to 1,700 satellites a year since 2012 and are expected to double again by 2030, according to the UK Space Agency.
Britain’s space industry is already worth £16.5 billion ($19.9 billion) annually and supports close to 50,000 jobs. Scotland builds more small satellites than any part of Europe, said Ian Annett, the space agency’s deputy chief executive officer.
Though British expertise covers almost all aspects of the sector, the inability to propel craft into orbit — a market worth about £20 billion a year globally, or 6% of the space value chain — has been a glaring omission.
While the UK’s northerly location makes it ill-suited to the launch of geostationary satellites, which orbit 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) from the Earth and are usually sent from closer to the equator, it’s perfectly matched to deployments into low-earth orbit at 2,000 kilometers or below.
“We’re brilliant at designing satellites, we’re great at building them, we’re attracting operating centers from major global firms and we have some fantastic companies analyzing the data,” Annett said in an interview. “The one thing that we don’t do at the moment is launch.”
For California-based Virgin Orbit, which has previously flown from the Mojave desert, the UK mission will be a crucial demonstration of the flexibility of an aircraft-based launch model, according to Branson, whose Virgin Group owns about 75% of the company following its listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
The mission will deploy nine satellites for multiple customers and should be followed by further sorties from Spaceport Cornwall, including another this year if a payload can be put together, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said Sunday.
UK plans are already looking beyond runway-based operations, however, with the country’s Civil Aviation Authority progressing an application from a site in Scotland, where rockets will blast away vertically.
Annett said that concrete has already been poured for launch pads at SaxaVord in the Shetland Islands, which aims to blast payloads of up to 1.5 metric tons into sun-synchronous, polar and high inclination orbits.
A trial mission is planned late this year by Lockheed Martin Corp. and partner ABL Space Systems, which is among a number of companies seeking to compete with Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Also in the running for Britain’s first vertical launch is the proposed Space Hub Sutherland on the northern Scottish mainland, which plans to offer small-satellite missions with local rocket developer Orbital Express Launch.
The other locations seeking to provide runway-based horizontal launches are Spaceport Snowdonia in north Wales, and two further Scottish sites — Prestwick Spaceport, west of Glasgow, which is targeting launches in 2024, and Spaceport Machrihanish, on the Kintyre peninsular, which is also exploring vertical missions. Another project, Spaceport 1, envisages vertical takeoffs from an island in the Outer Hebrides.
For now, however, the spotlight is on Spaceport Cornwall as Britain make its first foray into an increasingly competitive sector.
“Getting to this point represents an immense amount of effort,” said Annett. “Launches are hard and there’s a bit of a mini space-race in Europe with countries like Norway and Sweden also wanting to create their own capabilities.”
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