Virgin Orbit preparing for first U.K. launch

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WASHINGTON — After technical and licensing delays, Virgin Orbit is gearing up for its first launch from the United Kingdom as soon as Jan. 9.

A maritime navigation warning issued Jan. 4 identified a zone for hazardous operations for “rocket launching” off the coast of Ireland late Jan. 9, with a backup date of Jan. 18. The zone is consistent with the drop zone for Virgin Orbit’s “Start Me Up” LauncherOne mission flying out of Spaceport Cornwall in England.

Virgin Orbit spokesperson Allison Patch confirmed to SpaceNews that the navigation warning was for the upcoming launch, but said the company was not yet ready to formally announce a launch date for the mission. “All launch partners are currently working towards launch fairly soon,” she said, with a confirmation of the company’s launch plans expected in the coming days.

A separate marine notice issued by Ireland’s Department of Transport Jan. 4 listed a similar hazard area explicitly linked to the Virgin Orbit launch. In addition to the Jan. 9 and 18 launch dates, the Irish notice including potential launches on Jan. 13, 15, 19 and 20.

The hazard notices are in the event of a launch mishap involving the air-launched LauncherOne system. “Where the launch attempt proceeds as planned, no debris will enter the marine hazard area,” the Irish notice stated. “However, there is a low probability for the vehicle to produce dangerous debris if a mishap were to occur.”

Virgin Orbit had planned to conduct the Start Me Up mission last fall, flying its Boeing 747 aircraft, launch vehicle and related systems to Spaceport Cornwall in October. At one point, the company targeted a mid-December launch, only to postpone the launch days later, citing “additional technical work” on the launch system and a pending launch license from the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The CAA awarded that launch license to Virgin Orbit Dec. 21, clearing the final regulatory hurdles for the launch. “At this time, all of Virgin Orbit’s systems are green for launch,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a Dec. 22 statement. The company reported that both the vehicle and its payloads were in “good condition” to launch, but said only that a launch date would be set in the “coming weeks.”

The Start Me Up mission will place into orbit seven payloads from a variety of customers, including the U.K. Ministry of Defence, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the first satellite for the government of Oman.