Virgin Orbit ready for first U.K. launch

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SEATTLE — Virgin Orbit is set to perform the first orbital launch from the United Kingdom as soon as Jan. 9, a milestone officials hailed as the start of a new era for the country’s space industry.

At a Jan. 8 briefing at Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England, Virgin Orbit said they were in final preparations for the “Start Me Up” mission, set to take off from the spaceport as soon as 5:16 p.m. Eastern Jan. 9. Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft will fly to a drop point off the southern coast of Ireland and deploy the LauncherOne rocket about an hour after takeoff.

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said at the briefing that the company was still monitoring the vehicle and the weather, but did not mention any specific issue that could postpone the launch.

“Right now everything is green,” he said. “We’re going to proceed cautiously on this flight. We’re in different airspace than we’ve flown before. Our pilots are ready, but we want to make sure we give them every opportunity for a successful mission.”

The Start Me Up mission will place nine payloads into a sun-synchronous orbit for government and commercial customers. They include the U.K. Ministry of Defence, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Polish satellite developer SatRevolution, U.K. companies Horizon Technologies and Space Forge, and the government of Oman. The National Reconnaissance Office procured the launch as a task order on a streamlined launch contract it has with the company.

The launch is the sixth for Virgin Orbit, with the previous five having taken off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. “From the operation of the system, it’s essentially the same,” Hart said of operating from Cornwall versus Mojave. “A little different weather than Mojave, but otherwise the team is turning the wrenches the same way.”

The launch will be the first orbital launch from U.K. soil, which the British government heralds as a key step in growing the country’s space industry. “We are absolutely fantastic at designing satellites and building satellites,” said Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency. Having launches from the U.K., he said, “fills that end-to-end capability.”

Supporting the air-launch Virgin Orbit system required only modest changes to Cornwall Airport Newquay, home of Spaceport Cornwall. “We could have launched potentially the day after we were announced from a facilities perspective,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall.

The spaceport has made some investments to “future-proof” it, she said. That included building a satellite integration facility that can be used by other companies when Virgin Orbit is not operating there. Another building will open soon next to it to host other space companies. “It’s full, and we haven’t even opened it yet. That’s how excited people are.”

Spaceport Cornwall is one of several launch facilities either proposed or in development in the United Kingdom, including Space Hub Sutherland in northern Scotland that will host launches by Orbex and SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands that will support launches by companies such as ABL Space Systems and Skyrora.

Annett said he was not concerned that there may be an oversupply of U.K. launch facilities. “The market is changing rapidly. There is a strong demand for microlaunchers to get small satellites into low Earth orbit,” he said. “There’s more than enough in terms of a demand signal for us to respond to.”

“We can demonstrate that we will be Europe’s principal launch operator,” he said of the upcoming Virgin Orbit launch. “This is not one shot and then go away again. We need to make sure that we can work together and demonstrate we can launch the right missions and be competitive.”

Hart said that Virgin Orbit expected to fly again from Cornwall after the Start Me Up mission, but suggested the next launch from the spaceport might slip to 2024. “We would like to be back, if we could, before the end of the year,” he said. “I’m not sure that will happen, but it’s not out of the question.”

When Virgin Orbit will return to Cornwall will depend on payloads that want to launch from there, Hart said. “It starts with a payload, but there are a number of ideas percolating, working with the U.K. Space Agency and the rest of the community. We would like to start a rhythm.”

Virgin Orbit has not disclosed its launch plans for 2023 beyond the Start Me Up mission, but executives said in an earnings call in November they wanted to at least double its launch rate in 2022. The company, at the time of the call, expected conducting three launches in 2022 but ended the year with only two. At the start of 2022, the company projected performing six launches in the year, two of which from Spaceport Cornwall.