Plans continues for the historic first orbital launch from the UK with the window for the launch opening tonight.
The initial window for the Start Me Up mission will officially open today at 22:16 UTC with additional back-up dates continuing into mid and late January. Start Me Up is a collaborative effort between the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), Cornwall Council, the Royal Air Force, and Virgin Orbit.
The Start Me Up mission will carry satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations and a collaborative US-UK mission.
The LauncherOne system that will conduct the mission is now mated to its carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 dubbed Cosmic Girl, at Spaceport Cornwall. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system completed an end-to-end launch rehearsal, last week taking the integrated system through to the loading of propellants and proceeding through terminal count, resulting in the verification of the health of the system and readiness of the team.
“Given the number of ‘firsts’ being executed for this launch – the first orbital launch from UK soil or from anywhere in western Europe – Virgin Orbit and its partners will maintain a conservative posture with regard to system health, weather, and all other elements of scheduling,” a spokesperson said.
Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said: “We are entering a new era for space in the UK with the first ever satellite launch from UK soil and from Europe. This is a significant landmark for the nation, the UK Space Agency and for all those who have worked so hard over many years to make our ambitions to create a commercial space launch capability a reality.
“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalysing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the United Kingdom. This will lead to new careers, improved productivity and inspire the next generation of space professionals, and this is just the beginning. I look forward to seeing more launches from other UK spaceports over the next year, putting us firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for commercial small satellite launch.”
Spaceport Cornwall received the United Kingdom’s first-ever spaceport license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in November. In late December, Virgin Orbit was issued first-of-their-kind launch and range control licenses, which ensured all regulatory, safety, and environmental requirements have been met. And this week, the CAA announced that all of the satellites flying on this mission have received their licenses as well.
The forthcoming mission from Cornwall, titled Start Me Up in honour of the Rolling Stones’ 1981 hit, will contain many firsts: the first orbital launch from the United Kingdom, the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, and the first commercial launch from western Europe.
Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said: “After ensuring that every technical aspect is sound and every regulation and code has been satisfied, it is gratifying to see this historic endeavour on the verge of coming to fruition. This launch represents the opening of a new era in the British space industry and new partnerships across industry, government, and allies. Space is already responsible for tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, the global industry is growing quickly, and so is the potential. And this launch is demonstrating that with the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne system an airport can become a spaceport that sends humankind’s innovations on their journey.”
Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, added: “This is a phenomenal moment with incredible international collaboration. Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency and all of our partners are breaking new ground to transform access to space across the world from right here in Cornwall. My team at Spaceport Cornwall have worked so hard to get this far and we wish everyone the best of luck as the launch window opens, we are ready.”
The UK’s civil aviation authority said the safety of the launch and the public had been a key issue with the authority working with the various stakeholders to ensure risks were minimised.
Tim Johnson, director for space regulation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority explained: “Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity, and with public safety at the heart of our decision making, we’ve worked with Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall to assess their applications and issue licences within our expected timeframe, putting the UK framework on a competitive footing with international space regulators. With all licences in place, Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall are now in a position to deliver a historic first orbital launch from UK shores. We’re proud to be playing our part in facilitating the UK’s space ambitions and enable this country to become a leading launch nation.”
The missions of the satellites which will be deployed during the flight span a wide range of activities aimed at improving life on Earth, including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism; and a host of national security functions.