At midnight on a clear October sky over Cornwall, Britain will launch its first satellite, marking the start of its journey into commercial exploration of space.
It will also be the culmination of an eight-year programme that has been driven by Spaceport Cornwall and the government to give Britain a sovereign space capability and become a player in the international race to harness the potential of the cosmos for life on Earth.
That global reach will include Oman’s first satellite, used for Earth environmental surveillance, among the seven that are on the maiden UK flight.
It is a timely development after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought to a halt the launch of western satellites with Soyuz rockets in Kazakhstan.
And Spaceport Cornwall could become a major international centre for sending rockets into space, since Virgin Orbit has developed a unique vertical launch system using a converted 747 jet — called Cosmic Girl — rather than blasting a vehicle from the ground.
It is easy to imagine a jet hurtling down the long runway on the high ground over north Cornwall before it skims over the jagged clifftops and turquoise waters with a 21-metre rocket strapped under its wing.
The programme has attracted international customers from the Middle East to Europe and the US, and could lead to further engagement, particularly with the UAE’s space programme.
The National has been given access to the launch site and Spaceport Cornwall facilities where its mission control will soon begin directing three missions a year.
Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, the long leg of the Cornish coast provides an ideal route for launches.
Spaceport Cornwall has been built at a former RAF airbase which has a 2,740-metre runway, one of the longest regional airstrips in England.
In addition, it has the advantage of proximity to the sea and a small civilian population, addressing safety concerns about a jet taking off with a large space rocket on its wing.
The project has been driven by the UK Space Agency and Virgin Orbit in conjunction with Cornwall Council, which has provided the majority of the £20 million ($24.1m) funding.
Cornwall is known for its poor road connections and LauncherOne will be flown in from the US on a cargo aircraft but there are future plans to have the rockets manufactured on-site.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country had been the main hub for sending western commercial satellites into space but sanctions and security concerns have shut this down.
Spaceport Cornwall has therefore become operational at a critical time for western security, illustrated by two UK Ministry of Defence and two Pentagon satellites in the first 400 kilogram payload.
“The Russian Soyuz launches have come to an end and I think that was quite a shock to the industry,” said Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall. “But it also woke us up to the fact that we need to be able to launch our own satellites, we own them and we should be able to control how they get to space. This has politically pushed us up the agenda in having the sovereign launch capability to ensure that we're protecting democracy in space, as well as here on Earth.”
As Ukraine has also shown, the use of satellites in a war zone gives “unbiased views of the atrocities that are happening”.
She suggested that Britain may exercise launches in a “more responsible and more ethical” manner “than other places”.
Britain is also a world-leading satellite manufacturer, she said, so launching them from Cornwall would enable it to “capture that market opportunity”.
“The issues in Ukraine have certainly created even more of an onus on the UK to be able to launch our own satellites, but this will be not just a hub for Britain but for Europe and beyond.”
For the first time, a satellite built in Wales will go up, testing future return-to-Earth technology. Space Forge will manufacture objects in space, such as alloys, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals. “If you make those things in the space environment, they're a lot more efficient because if you take gravity and add a vacuum you can make alloys a lot stronger,” a spokeswoman for the company said. “It's a really interesting development.”
The ForgeStar-0 satellite will be the company's first in-orbit test of its technology that will enable return to Earth, and in-space manufacturing of objects, such as alloys, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals.
One Ministry of Defence satellite will provide the military with extra navigation capabilities, while another payload, Amber-1, a collaboration between the Satellite Applications Catapult and Horizon Technologies, will be sited over British waters for Maritime Monitoring, including illegal fishing activities.
Another military satellite will monitor emergency management of weather patterns.
The satellites will also help reinforce the agreements made at the Cop26 climate summit last year, said Ms Thorpe, an aerospace economist by training. “This is holding people to account where lots of promises were made at Cop26 — satellites are very good at tracking to see if they are upholding those promises. Satellites are very good at showing in plain sight your levels of deforestation in this area are still well beyond what you promised they were going to be," she said.
“Satellites have a huge role in helping us combat climate change, as long as we can get them up there and in more environmentally-friendly ways. We can show unbiasedly, in real time, what's happening and that really helps with influencing policy, because nobody can argue any longer.”
The 747-400 plane that’s had all its passenger seats stripped out will power along Newquay’s long runway carrying LauncherOne on a pylon beneath its left wing.
Flown by RAF fighter pilot Matthew Stannard, Cosmic Girl will climb up above the Atlantic until it reaches 11,000 metres, when the rocket engine will be initiated as it is launched from underneath the jet.
LauncherOne will then power into low Earth orbit where it will open up, deploying the satellites into space as Cosmic Girl returns to Newquay to await her next mission.
An enormous white hangar is the key structure that dominates the Spaceport complex but construction work is still continuing with a mission-control building to be built.
The hangar includes a “clean room” sterile environment in which personnel dressed in special suits operate a crane to lower the payload into the rocket’s nose.
It is then tilted horizontally and attached to the rest of the rocket before being driven out of the hangar on to the runway to Cosmic Girl.
Gulf in space
Ms Thorpe believes the maiden UK voyage will act as a catalyst for international interest, including from the Gulf region.
“We have seen some incredible movement in the UAE’s space agency, especially getting more women into the industry,” she told The National. “Fifty per cent of the UAE space agency is female and that's incredible to see. They're starting to lead the way in a lot of different areas, obviously putting money into things like Artemis Moon mission. It’s a great example of lots of other places around the world really starting to get into space.”
She said it was also an exciting time to be involved in British space development. With the country for many years being a “heavy hitter” in building satellites, she said it can now “for the first time ever capture that marketplace launching from Cornwall”.
It is already acting as a magnet attracting international orders, with other satellite companies filling order books, a progression that was not expected for at least five years.
History in the making
The Spaceport programme is expected to generate 240 jobs and bring in £240m in gross added value to Britain’s economy.
The launch window opens at the end of September and Cosmic Girl, which has already successfully launched three satellite rockets from the US, is expected to take off a few weeks later.
Planning is already under way in expectation of the numbers who will descend on Cornwall to witness a historic moment in British aviation history.