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Virgin Orbit receives license for U.K. launch

Cosmic Girl at Spaceport Cornwall
Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, “Cosmic Girl,” at Spaceport Cornwall in England preparing for a launch later this year, pending licenses from a U.K. regulator. Credit: Virgin Orbit

WASHINGTON — British regulators have issued a launch license to Virgin Orbit for its first LauncherOne mission from the United Kingdom, now expected to take place in January.

The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced Dec. 21 it issued launch and range licenses to Virgin Orbit for its “Start Me Up” mission, which will take off from Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England. The CAA previously issued a spaceport license for Spaceport Cornwall. The licenses are the first issued by the CAA for commercial launches from the U.K.

Virgin Orbit now has all the regulatory approvals needed for its first launch from the U.K. that is now expected for January, although the company has not announced a specific launch date. The launch will carry seven satellites for commercial and government customers, including the U.K. Ministry of Defence, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the government of Oman.

“Receiving Virgin Orbit’s range and launch licenses takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch takeoff from U.K. soil,” said Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, in a statement. “This is a major milestone for the CAA and represents the successful completion of an enormous effort, which has included the construction of new regulations, new processes and new teams.”

Hart, in a company earnings call in November, had complained that the licensing process was taking longer than expected and requiring more effort by the company. Virgin Orbit had projected conducting the launch before the end of the year, and before that earnings call was still expecting to return the LauncherOne air-launch system to the U.S. for another launch before the end of 2022.

However, the company announced Dec. 8 it was postponing the launch, then scheduled for mid-December, “for the coming weeks.” The company blamed the delay in part on a lack of a launch license but also said additional technical work was needed to prepare the vehicle for launch.

“This is another major milestone in enabling the very first orbital space launch from U.K. shores and these licenses will assist Virgin Orbit with their final preparations for launch,” Tim Johnson, director for space regulations at the CAA, said in a statement.

“Effective licensing forms an integral part of U.K. space activity, and with public safety at the heart of our decision making, we’ve worked with Virgin Orbit to assess their applications and issue licenses within our expected timelines,” he stated. The CAA has previously estimated the launch licensing process to take 9 to 18 months, and in the statement noted it awarded the license to Virgin Orbit in 15 months.

The delays in the first U.K. launch had added to concerns about Virgin Orbit’s financial condition. The company, which had anticipated performing up to six launches in 2022 when the year started, has performed only two.

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Dec. 20, Virgin Orbit announced it had raised an additional $20 million from Virgin Investments Limited, an investment arm of the Virgin Group. The funding came through a convertible note, a loan that can be converted into equity. Virgin Orbit said in the filing that it will use the funding for working capital.

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...