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 and a local government announced plans June 4 to invest in facilities at a British airport to support launch operations by Virgin Orbit.

The investment by the U.K. Space Agency and Cornwall Council, totaling up to £20 million ($25.4 million), will fund the development of “facilities and operational capabilities” at Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall, to allow Virgin Orbit to carry out launches using its LauncherOne air-launch system.

The announcement didn’t identify specific upgrades to the airport needed to support Virgin Orbit’s system, which uses a Boeing 747 aircraft as an air-launch platform for its LauncherOne rocket. Virgin Orbit will contribute £2.5 million to the project, and the total amount of U.K. and local government funding is contingent on “business case approval processes,” including one by the Cornwall Council later this year.

If the funding is confirmed, it would allow Spaceport Cornwall to be ready to support LauncherOne missions by the early 2020s. Virgin Orbit has obtained a technical assistance agreement from the U.S. State Department to allow it to carry out discussions involving export-controlled technologies in its launch system with British officials.

“We are very proud to play a role in bringing space launch back to Britain, with a revolutionary new level of flexibility and responsiveness,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a statement.

Hart noted that the company “has now demonstrated every major assembly of our LauncherOne system” as the company nears a first orbital launch, expected later this year. On the same day of the agreement, the company performed another captive carry test of its 747 with a LauncherOne attached.

During the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2018, Virgin Orbit signed an agreement with officials from Cornwall to study LauncherOne operations from Spaceport Cornwall. The agreement, and promises by the U.K. Space Agency at that time to offer up to £2 million in funding for horizontal spaceports like Cornwall, was seen as something of a consolation prize after the government announced it would fund development of a vertical launch site in Sutherland, on the Atlantic coast in northern Scotland.

“These exciting plans from Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit to make horizontal launch a reality from Cornwall will help further our position as a leader in the new space age,” Greg Clark, business secretary in the U.K. government, said in a statement. “Alongside our commitment to the proposed vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland, this is making the UK the most attractive place in Europe for those looking to Earth’s orbit and beyond.”

The U.K. Space Agency announced the funding for Spaceport Cornwall at the same time as two other, unrelated initiatives. The agency will provide a team at University College London with £7 million to develop a plasma analyzer instrument to monitor space weather conditions. The instrument will be flown on a space weather mission being developed by ESA, in coordination with a separate spacecraft that NOAA will develop.

A second initiative involved the creation of a National Space Council like that in the U.S., coordinating activities on space issues within the U.K. government. That council will be formally established later this year.

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...