WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after the failed Virgin Orbit launch from England, United Kingdom government officials remain optimistic about the prospects for building up a launch industry in the country.
The U.K. Space Agency released a lessons learned report Dec. 14 on the “UK Pathfinder Launch,” the January 2023 launch by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne from Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England. The launch was billed as the first orbital launch from U.K. soil, but the payload of several smallsats failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s second stage malfunctioned.
“Although the satellites onboard were not placed into orbit due to a technical anomaly with the rocket’s second stage engine,” the agency stated in the report, “this historic event demonstrated the UK’s ability to launch, safely, legally and with the appropriate coordination across government.”
The report made several recommendations about the process of conducting launches from the country. That included streamlining the licensing process to make it easier for companies to demonstrate they have the financial and technical capabilities to carry out a launch, sharing information among the various government agencies involved in launches and improved coordination with other nations whose airspace and waters may be affected by launches.
The report concluded that many of these lessons were the inevitable result of the first-time application of new regulations and processes, although in at least one case the government put some of the blame on Virgin Orbit. It noted that “international engagement was complicated by over-optimistic delivery plans from Virgin Orbit, resulting in significant effort and good will being expended across [His Majesty’s Government] and with other nations to enable a launch window that lacked credibility.”
Government officials acknowledge the failed launch was a setback but remain optimistic about the launch industry in the country. “It was a blow, right? It was hugely disappointing for everybody involved,” said Craig Brown, investment director at the U.K. Space Agency, during a Dec. 14 webinar on the U.K. space sector by the Westminster Business Forum. “It reflects very well the challenges of launch and space in general.”
He argued there was still a role for the country in launch, citing a “bottleneck” in launch globally. “Does the business case still stack up for small launch in the U.K.? We believe that it does,” he said. “There are good reasons for the U.K. to have sovereign capability and be able to launch its own satellites from its own soil.”
Later in the webinar, Colin MacLeod, head of U.K. spaceflight regulation at the Civil Aviation Authority, said current regulations were “fit for purpose” based on the strong interest his office is seeing. “We currently have nine launch companies in various stages of applications with us as the regulator. There’s not many other countries in the world that can say that.”
He did not disclose the names of those companies, but several companies, both those based in the U.K. and elsewhere, have announced plans to launch from spaceports in the country as soon as next year. The U.K. Space Agency announced Dec. 13 that the European Space Agency’s “Boost!” program had awarded 6.7 million pounds ($8.5 million) to HyImpulse and Orbex to support development of environmentally sustainable systems to support launches from spaceports in the Shetland Island and northern Scotland, respectively.
HyImpulse, which announced an agreement to launch from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetlands Nov. 15, plans to begin orbital launches there as soon as late 2025. Orbex, whose chief executive abruptly resigned in April, has not provided recent updates about the status of its launch vehicle or launch site. A company spokesperson said Dec. 6 the company did not have a date for its first launch.
MacLeod said that regulators faced criticism both before and after the Virgin Orbit launch. “We had a lot of media attention in the runup to the Virgin launch telling us that we were too slow, too strict and that we needed to get on with things,” he recalled. “After the Virgin anomaly, we were told we did it too quickly, we didn’t consider things in enough detail and got it all wrong.”
The experience, he said, demonstrated how “incredibly complex” all the issues associated with launch are. “The lessons which have been learned have been very valuable.”