An agreement to be signed July 16 could lead to LauncherOne missions by Virgin Orbit flying out of Cornwall Airport Newquay, aka Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: Spaceport Cornwall

WASHINGTON — The U.K. Space Agency will provide $9.5 million for infrastructure at a British airport that seeks to host Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system.

The U.K. Space Agency announced Nov. 5 that it will provide £7.35 million ($9.5 million) to Virgin Orbit U.K. Ltd., the U.K. branch of Virgin Orbit, for launch support equipment and mission planning activities at Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall, intended to support flights by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launch system.

The space agency funding is part of a broader funding package of nearly £20 million to allow Virgin Orbit to operate from the airport in southwestern England. The local government in Cornwall is slated to vote later this month on providing £10 million for the effort, while Virgin Orbit will contribute £2.5 million.

“We’re eager to set up a world-class launch facility at Spaceport Cornwall, bring domestic space launch to the U.K., and launch the next generation of satellite developers,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a statement about the U.K. Space Agency funding.

The U.K. government announced its intent to support development of a spaceport at the Cornwall airport in June. At the time the U.K. Space Agency proposed offering up to £7.85 million and the local government, the Cornwall Council, up to £12 million, with no mention of any contribution by Virgin Orbit.

“We want the U.K. to be the first country in Europe to give its small satellite manufacturers a clear route from the factory to the spaceport,” Chris Skidmore, the British government’s science minister, said in a statement. “That’s why it’s so important that we are developing new infrastructure to allow aircraft to take off and deploy satellites, a key capability that the U.K. currently lacks.”

The British government has been pursuing various efforts to establish a domestic launch capability in recent years. In July 2018, it announced it would fund development of a vertical launch site in northern Scotland and support two companies, Lockheed Martin and Orbex, who plan to fly small launch vehicles from the site. At the same time, the government left open the door for supporting other launch facilities, including horizontal launch sites like in Cornwall.

Construction of the vertical launch site in Scotland has yet to begin, as local officials work on agreements to obtain the land and address environmental concerns. At the time of last year’s announcement, government officials said they expected the site to start hosting launches there in the early 2020s.

Virgin Orbit, in a statement about the funding decision, said Spaceport Cornwall could host its first LauncherOne mission as soon as late 2021, a schedule that will depend on various regulatory approvals in both the United States and Britain as well as completion of the infrastructure improvements at the airport. The company said those first launches from Cornwall “could well be the first orbital launches ever conducted from the U.K.”

Virgin Orbit is in the final phases of development of LauncherOne, a rocket that is released from a Boeing 747 aircraft and is capable of placing several hundred kilograms into low Earth orbit. The company has previously said it will attempt its first orbital launch before the end of the year, but has not been more specific about a launch date. In its statement, the company only said its first launch is “expected soon.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...