Virgin Orbit Cornwall signing
Patrick McCall, chairman of the board of Virgin Orbit, signs an agreement at the Farnborough Air Show July 16 that could support potential LauncherOne missions from a Cornwall airport. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

FARNBOROUGH, England — Virgin Orbit says an agreement that could lead to LauncherOne missions from an English airport is part of an effort to both better meet the needs of its customers as well as support the U.K. space industry.

Virgin Orbit formally signed an agreement with officials from Cornwall July 16 that would lead to missions of the company’s LauncherOne air-launch system flown out of Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall. The signing ceremony took place during the Farnborough International Airshow, a day after the agreement was announced.

In an interview after the signing ceremony, Patrick McCall, managing director of Virgin Group and chairman of the board of Virgin Orbit, said that one reason the company decided to seek a British launch site was to support development of the country’s industry by providing a means to launch satellites built in the U.K.

“Richard [Branson] and I are both British, and we want to support the U.K. space industry the best we can,” he said. “We think this is a fantastic opportunity.”

British officials have emphasized the desire to establish a launch capability to address a gap in the country’s space capabilities. That has driven work to support both the development of launch vehicles as well as spaceports that can host those launches. That effort achieved its latest milestones at Farnborough, with the announcement of a spaceport in northern Scotland to be used by Lockheed Martin and Orbex, and the separate agreement between Cornwall and Virgin Orbit.

The same arguments have been made at the local level as well. “This partnership with Virgin Orbit today will make a major contribution to Cornwall’s ambition to create a one-billion-pound space economy as part of its response to the U.K. Industrial Strategy,” said Adam Paynter, leader of the Cornwall Council, at the signing ceremony.

But McCall also made clear that the company is motivated by the business prospects for launching from Cornwall. “A lot of people launch from different parts of the world. It helps to be able to launch into different orbits,” he said. “Our customers are based here, so we want to support them with launches.”

Virgin Orbit plans to begin launches later this year on flights out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. However, it is looking into several other launch sites, both in the United States and other countries, for LauncherOne missions. Prior to the Cornwall announcement, the company announced an agreement with Italian company Sitael earlier this month to study missions flying out of an airport in southern Italy.

That diversity of launch sites is driven by customer interest, said Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit vice president. “We’re impressed by how many people are interested in becoming a launch site,” he said after the signing ceremony.

Virgin Orbit will need minimal resources to operate from Spaceport Cornwall, primarily in the form of ground equipment to support preparations of LauncherOne and its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft. “The amount of money that needs to be spent on infrastructure is a few single millions,” he said. “There’s not a lot of work that needs to be done.”

A bigger challenge, though, may be regulatory issues. As Cornwall officials work to be licensed as a spaceport by the British government, Virgin Orbit will also need to be licensed, but only after securing export control agreements with the U.S. government that will allow the company to share detailed technical information with British regulators.

“There’s some significant regulatory approvals that we need to go through with the U.S. government that will take some time,” he said. “I know the U.K. Space Agency has been talking to the U.S., but I’ve been through a few regulatory processes with the U.S. government, so I know it takes a bit time and effort.”

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...