Spaceport Cornwall: UK’s first space mission set for lift off after licence granted

Site in south-west England will soon start sending satellites into space

Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747 modified to launch satellites, on the tarmac at Spaceport Cornwall. Bloomberg
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The first space launch from UK soil has been approved for lift off as Spaceport Cornwall has secured an operating licence.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said the site in Newquay, south-west England, can be used for sending satellites into space.

The first mission, the launch of Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, which will carry eight shoebox-sized satellites, is expected in the coming weeks.

CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty described the awarding of the first spaceport licence in the UK as a "historic moment".

"We're proud to be playing our part in facilitating the UK's space ambitions through assessing the safety, security and other requirements of these activities," he said.

"This is another major milestone to enable this country to become a leading launch nation."

A window for the Virgin Orbit flight opened on October 29 and the team was aiming for take-off before the middle of this month but failed to secure the licence in time.

The 747 will take off horizontally while carrying the rocket, before releasing it at 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.

The plane will return to the spaceport, while the rocket will ignite its engine and take multiple small satellites into orbit with a variety of civil and defence applications.

The mission, which has been given the title Start Me Up in tribute to British band The Rolling Stones, will mark the launch of the first satellites into space from Europe.

Virgin Orbit ‘Cosmic Girl’ – in pictures

Satellites produced in the UK previously had to be sent to foreign spaceports for launching.

The satellites will perform a variety of tasks for customers, including Oman and the US and UK militaries, such as monitoring illegal fishing off the coast of the UK.

Another will investigate ways to manufacture products in orbit, rather than on Earth. A British military satellite will look at GPS and navigation for its forces overseas, while the Omani satellite will focus on the effects of climate change.

The official approval for Spaceport Cornwall comes after group of MPs criticised the government’s approach to space policy this month.

Members of the Science and Technology Committee said in a report: “The government must also improve its approach to leadership on space. Currently, the approach to space policy across Whitehall is disjointed and unclear.

“It is disappointing that the first launch from the UK did not take place in summer 2022 as was originally proposed.”

Updated: November 16, 2022, 8:24 AM