The UK last launched a satellite into space in October 1971, from Woomera, Australia. If plans go ahead, the next UK satellite launch will take place within the next three years from a rather different, and closer to home, location: Cornwall.
Virgin Orbit is planning to deliver one of the first launches of its LauncherOne system outside of the US from a spaceport at Cornwall Airport Newquay by 2021. If it goes ahead, it’s a major coup for the county, which has grand ambitions to create a major space economy.
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) estimates the spaceport could create up to 480 jobs, generating £25m a year for the local economy. More widely, the LEP predicts the space economy could create thousands of jobs and be worth £1bn a year by 2030.
The launch platform itself will be horizontal, meaning rockets are attached to the wing or fuselage of aircraft, which take off normally. Once the aircraft reaches altitude and a suitable distance, the rocket detaches and continues into space to drop off its satellite. Newquay provides an ideal location for this, thanks to its long runway, uncongested airspace and direct access to the Atlantic Ocean.
For its missions, Virgin Orbit will be using a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft. Cosmic Girl, as she is not-so-creatively-known, will carry a LauncherOne rocket under her wing, to be fired into space at around 35,000 feet over the Atlantic.
Horizontal launching can’t carry as much weight as vertical launching. Virgin Orbit’s technology allows loads of up to 500kg. In comparison, Elon Musk’s SpaceX can send nearly 64 metric tonnes into orbit using its vertical-launch Falcon Heavy rocket.
But there is a growing market (worth £250m) for small satellites, where Britain is a world leader. Estimates suggest up to 2,600 microsatellites (under 50kg) will require launching in the next five years alone.
The UK government has grand intergalactic ambitions, with a target of achieving commercial spaceflight from British soil by the end of the decade and to increase the UK’s share of the global space economy to 10 per cent, from 6.5 per cent, by 2030. To infinity, and beyond…
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