Virgin Orbit awaiting license for first UK launch

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WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit says it is technically ready for its next LauncherOne mission, and the first orbital launch from the United Kingdom, but is still waiting on a launch license from the British government.

Virgin Orbit announced Oct. 5 that it completed a launch rehearsal for the mission, including fueling of the rocket, three days earlier at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The vehicle is now “ready for flight,” the company said.

Unlike the previous LauncherOne missions, the upcoming launch will not take place from Mojave but instead Spaceport Cornwall in England. That requires obtaining a launch license from the U.K. government, through its Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). That launch license is still pending, and the company said in its Oct. 5 statement that a schedule for the launch “will be determined by the launch permitting regulatory process.”

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said at an IPO-Edge webinar Oct. 6 that the company is working closely with the CAA on the license application, including meetings he had “very recently” with U.K. government officials. “It’s very clear that there’s a real commitment to drive forward,” he said of the planned launch. “That said, there’s some questions and it’s important in this business to make sure that the roles are clear, and that safety is job one.”

Hart said that the company does have an internal planning date for the launch but did not disclose it. “We will, over the next few days, put that out,” he said. “We’re gearing up right now for logistics to ship rockets and equipment.”

Industry sources said the company had been working to a launch no earlier than Oct. 29, but that date appears unlikely given the time needed to set up for the launch in Cornwall as well as obtain the launch license.

The mission, reportedly to be called “Start Me Up” after the Rolling Stones song, will carry nine cubesats from the United Kingdom, United States, Poland and Oman. The launch will place the satellites into a sun-synchronous orbit at about 550 kilometers altitude.

The upcoming launch will be the third this year for Virgin Orbit, after successful launches in January and July from Mojave. The company, which originally projected conducting as many as six launches this year, later lowered that target to four, with a launch from Mojave late this year after the U.K. launch.

Hart acknowledged getting that fourth launch in this year may be difficult depending on when the Cornwall launch takes place. “We will be focused first on this launch,” he said of the upcoming U.K. launch. “Then we’ll be taking a look and seeing if we can get that fourth one in.”