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Virgin Orbit launch: Everything you need to know about historic Cornwall rocket mission

Virgin Orbit launch
Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall

Virgin Orbit has been given the go-ahead for the first orbital satellite launch from the UK, with the initial launch window starting on Monday at 22:16.

Taking off from Spaceport Cornwall, Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” will climb to an altitude of 35,000 feet where it will drop its LauncherOne satellite payload.

“We are entering a new era for space in the UK with the first ever satellite launch from UK soil and from Europe,” said Ian Annett, deputy CEO of 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.”

If the launch is postponed again, backup dates are lined up for later this week and next week.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Virgin Orbit launch, how you can watch it and what it means for the UK’s space industry.

What does Virgin Orbit do?

Virgin Orbit is a US company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. It supplies launch services for small satellites, not to be confused with Branson’s other space company Virgin Galactic, which aims to provide commercial space flight.

Founded in 2017, Virgin Orbit is taking a different approach to putting satellites into space from its competitors. While Elon Musk’s SpaceX uses vertical take-off and re-usable autonomous rocket boosters, Virgin Orbit’s launches are horizontal, like an aeroplane.

In fact, most of the vehicle is a plane – a converted Boeing 747 that has been largely stripped out to reduce weight. The remaining part of the craft is a rocket payload that detaches and continues its journey into Earth orbit.

Virgin Orbit launch path
Image credit: Virgin Orbit

What is Spaceport Cornwall?

Situated at Cornwall Airport Newquay, Spaceport Cornwall is a consortium crewed by Cornwall Council, Virgin Orbit, Goonhilly Earth Station and the UK Space Agency.

Cornwall Airport Newquay was nominated as a potential launch site eight years ago and has since attracted more than £20m in funding. That includes significant contributions from the UK Space Agency (£7.35m), Cornwall Council (£5.6m) and European Regional Development Funding (£2.8m).

It is one of several sites across the UK hoping to usher in an age of UK satellite launches.

Where will you see the launch from?

Virgin Orbit’s adapted Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” should be viewable in the UK within the first minute of launch, illustrated by the blue and cyan on the map below.

France, Spain and Portugal’s coastal regions will be able to see the launch between two and three minutes after lift-off.

Virgin Orbit Launch
Image credit: Virgin Orbit

Where and when can I watch the launch?

The scheduled timings for the launch are:

  • 22:16 – 23:16 – Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” takes off.
  • 22:54 – 23:54 – Cosmic Girl releases the LauncherOne rocket containing the satellites.
  • 00:00 – 01:00 – Cosmic Girl returns to Spaceport Cornwall.
  • 01:15 – 01:30 – Confirmation that satellites have disconnected from LauncherOne.

Virgin Orbit is live-streaming the entire event via its YouTube here from 21:00 today.

What is onboard Virgin Orbit?

Onboard the inaugural flight are seven small satellites from a mix of startups and organisations. They are:

– Open Cosmos’ SmallSat DOVER satellite, which will be used for global navigation satellite systems. The Oxford-based company also had one of its satellites on the SpaceX Transporter-6 mission earlier this month.

– Space Forge, based in Cardiff, is using its seat on the mission to carry out the first in-space test for its reusable satellite capable of making materials in orbit.

– IOD-3 AMBER, a joint satellite by Satellite Applications Catapult, Horizon Technologies and AAC Clyde Space is the first of a 20-strong constellation that will give Maritime Domain Awareness data.

– The UK’s Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is launching two cubesat satellites, dubbed “Prometheus-2”, to aid its science and technology ventures from its base in Portsmouth.

– Dstl as well has partnered with the US Naval Research Laboratory for their Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment.

– An Earth observation satellite from Oman, which is an initiative between Sultanate of Oman, Polish Small Satellite, SatRev, TUATARA and ETCO.

– From Polish Small Satellite and SatRev is the STORK-6 satellite, which forms part of their STORK constellation.

How did we get here?

In July, Virgin Orbit announced its plans to have its first international launch take place from Spaceport Cornwall later in the year.

Despite initial intentions to take off in December, Virgin Orbit had to delay the launch as a result of “additional technical work”. Its launch licence and range licence was granted later in the month by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, with backing from the transport secretary.

Spaceport Cornwall was issued the UK’s first spaceport licence back in November.

After Virgin Orbit’s first Cornwall mission, it intends to continue using the South West location for two launches a year for five years.

Sierra Space has also signed up to use the site as a landing location for its spaceplane Dream Chaser.

“The sector already provides 42,000 jobs, and our analysis shows it could create a further 30,000 in the next decade, many of which are ‘green jobs’ in areas like climate change monitoring, smart transport routing and flood prevention,” added Bunn.

It will be the first-ever orbital space launch from British soil, and if all goes to plan could pave the way for a fresh wave of UK space tech innovation in Cornwall and across the country.

Dr Alice Bunn, president, UKspace, said: “Over the past 20 years, the UK space sector has built one of the most innovative and highly skilled sectors in our economy, valued at around £14.8bn a year. And with continued investment, this could double to £30bn by 2030.”

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