SEATTLE — Virgin Orbit is set to perform the first orbital launch from Britain as soon as Jan. 9, a milestone officials hailed as the start of a new era for the country’s space industry.
At a briefing on Jan. 8 at Spaceport Cornwall in southwest England, Virgin Orbit said it was in final preparations for the “Start Me Up” mission, which is due to take off from the spaceport as soon as 7 p.m. 5:16 p.m. Eastern on January 9. Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft will fly to a drop point off the south coast of Ireland and deploy the LauncherOne rocket about an hour after takeoff.
Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said at the briefing that the company was still monitoring the vehicle and the weather, but did not mention any specific issue that could delay the launch.
“Right now everything is green,” he said. “We are going to proceed with caution on this flight. We are in a different airspace than we have flown before. Our pilots are ready, but we want to make sure we give them every opportunity for a successful mission.”
The Start Me Up mission will place nine payloads into a sun-synchronous orbit for government and commercial customers. They include the British Ministry of Defence, the US Naval Research Laboratory, Polish satellite developer SatRevolution, British companies Horizon Technologies and Space Forge and the government of Oman. The National Reconnaissance Office procured the launch as a task order on a streamlined launch contract it has with the company.
The launch is the sixth for Virgin Orbit, with the previous five taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. “From the operation of the system, it’s essentially the same,” Hart said of operating from Cornwall versus Mojave. “Slightly different weather than the Mojave, but otherwise the team turns the wrench the same way.”
The launch will be the first orbital launch from British soil, which the British government is heralding as a key step in expanding the country’s space industry. “We are absolutely fantastic at designing satellites and building satellites,” said Ian Arnett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency. Having launched from the UK, he said, “it’s filling end-to-end capacity.”
Supporting the Virgin Orbit air launch system required only modest changes to Cornwall Airport Newquay, home of Spaceport Cornwall. “We could have launched potentially the day after we were announced from a facilities perspective,” said Melissa Thorpe, chief executive of Spaceport Cornwall.
The spaceport has made some investments to “future-proof” it, she said. That included building a satellite integration facility that could be used by other companies when Virgin Orbit is not operating there. Another building will soon open next to it to host other space companies. “It’s full and we haven’t even opened it yet. That’s how excited people are.”
Spaceport Cornwall is one of several launch facilities either proposed or under development in the UK, including Space Hub Sutherland in northern Scotland which will host launches by Orbex and SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands which will support launches by companies such as ABL Space Systems and Skyrora.
Arnett said he was not concerned that there might be an oversupply of launch facilities in the UK. “The market is changing rapidly. There is a strong demand for microlaunchers to get small satellites into low Earth orbit,” he said. “That’s more than enough in terms of a demand signal for us to respond to.”
“We can demonstrate that we will be Europe’s main launch operator,” he said of the upcoming Virgin Orbit launch. “This is not one shot and then walk away. We have to make sure we can work together and demonstrate that we can launch the right missions and be competitive.”
Hart said Virgin Orbit expected to fly again from Cornwall after the Start Me Up mission, but suggested the next launch from the spaceport could slip to 2024. “We’d like to be back, if we could, before the end of the year,” he said. “I’m not sure it will happen, but it’s not out of the question.”
When Virgin Orbit returns to Cornwall will depend on payloads wanting to launch from there, Hart said. “It starts with a payload, but there are a number of ideas swirling around, working with the UK Space Agency and the rest of the community. We’d like to start a rhythm.”
Virgin Orbit has not disclosed its 2023 launch plans beyond the Start Me Up mission, but executives said on an earnings call in November that they wanted to at least double the launch rate in 2022. The company, at the time of the call, expected to conduct three launches in 2022, but ended the year with only two. At the start of 2022, the company projected to carry out six launches a year, two of which from Spaceport Cornwall.