Cornwall on course to win UK space race with first satellite launch

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit is braced for lift-off from horizontal spaceport in the remote English county

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The south-western English county of Cornwall is this year set to be the site of a notable chapter in UK space exploration.

The race is on to complete the first orbital launch on UK soil, with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit in pole position.

The company plans to carry a Welsh satellite into space from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay this summer.

Virgin Orbit this month announced an agreement with start-up Space Forge to launch the satellite developed in Wales from the horizontal spaceport.

The Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket in its hangar at Newquay Airport, England. Getty Images

“We’re thrilled to be making UK history with our first launch,” said Joshua Western, chief executive of Space Forge.

“We will demonstrate the use of space for good, through in-space manufacturing and reliable return and it’s brilliant that both Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall share our ambitions.

“This is the start of a great collaboration and we are so excited to see where it goes.”

Horizontal spaceport

Spaceport Cornwall offers an existing airport runway and facilities that can be used for horizontal launches to space.

Virgin Orbit uses a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, which releases a rocket mid-air when the plane reaches a target altitude.

The aircraft returns to the runway and the rocket, called LauncherOne, carries the satellite payloads into low-Earth orbit.

At 21 metres in length, LauncherOne can launch up to 500 kilograms in each mission.

Virgin Orbit’s first orbital test launch in May 2020 ended in failure after a fuel line in the rocket ruptured.

However, the company has had three successful launches in 2021 and 2022, including when it delivered seven customer satellites in January from a spaceport in California.

What is the satellite?

Space Forge wants to build a small manufacturing plant in space, called ForgeStar, which will create products in space and then return them to Earth.

For the mission this summer, the company will launch ForgeStar-0, the first step towards building the factory.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said the launch represented the chance “to set the bar for the global space industry”.

“Leading with companies like Space Forge, who are innovating in the responsible use of space, is key to this next iteration of space exploration,” she said.

Race for UK’s first orbital launch

Several horizontal and vertical spaceports are in development across the UK, including five in Scotland.

It is expected the Orbex Prime rocket would eventually launch sometime this year from the Sutherland Spaceport near Scotland’s northern coast.

However, it is unclear whether it would beat Virgin Orbit’s launch from Cornwall this summer.

Another spaceport is in development at the Shetland Islands, where Lockheed Martin has set up UK launch operations.

Spaceports beings built in Scotland - in pictures

Updated: March 17, 2022, 12:29 PM