UK launches consultation on Virgin Orbit launch

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TAMPA, Fla. — The U.K. announced a public consultation July 22 to assess the environmental impact of the country’s first space launch, as part of the licensing process for clearing Virgin Orbit’s mission this year.

The U.K.’s space regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), is seeking comments on an environmental assessment from Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall, a government and industry consortium providing the mission’s intended launch site.

The assessment, which is required to secure operating licenses from the CAA, covers the steps Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall are taking to minimize the environmental impact of using Newquay Cornwall Airport in southwest England as a take-off and landing zone for Virgin Orbit’s air-launch system.

Virgin Orbit has proposed to undertake two horizontal launches per year from Spaceport Cornwall until 2030, CAA said. 

Its LauncherOne air-launch system uses a modified Boeing 747 aircraft that carries a two-stage rocket under its wing, and has conducted five orbital missions in the U.S. to date.

The fifth and fourth consecutive successful mission placed a set of payloads for the U.S. Space Force July 2.

The CAA’s consultation closes Aug. 22.

Virgin Orbit also needs a license from the U.K.’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO), which includes another public consultation that is slated to close Aug. 19.

LauncherOne has been scheduled to fly as soon as September from Spaceport Cornwall, which is operated by a consortium comprising Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency, Goonhilly Earth Station and the Cornwall Council unitary authority.

“This is the first time the Civil Aviation Authority has consulted on an organisation’s environmental assessment around a space launch,” CAA policy director Tim Johnson said in a statement.

“As the UK’s space regulator, it’s important we review environmental effects before issuing licences, and we are working closely with the Marine Management Organisation to make sure Newquay residents and businesses’ voices are heard before making any final decisions.”

Payloads due to fly on Virgin Orbit’s first U.K. mission include two Prometheus 2 cubesats, carrying pathfinder experiments to support the U.K.’s Minerva remote-sensing constellation.

The mission will also carry a positioning, navigation and timing pathfinder satellite for RHEA Group, and a joint experiment developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the U.K. Defense Science and Technology Laboratory to study changes in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Elsewhere in the United Kingdom., companies racing to conduct the first-ever vertical launch to orbit from British soil.