Lift-off for UK spaceport after final licences awarded

Virgin Orbit gets approval for use of repurposed Boeing 747 to launch rocket carrying multiple satellites in next few weeks

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Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has awarded the final licences to Virgin Orbit to operate what will be the UK's first space launch.

The CAA said the company, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, demonstrated it has “taken all reasonable steps to ensure safety risks arising from launch activities are as low as reasonably practicable”.

Virgin Orbit will launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport Newquay in south-west England.

Some time in the next few weeks, a specially repurposed Boeing 747 will take off horizontally from the new facility carrying the Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket under one of its wings. It will then release the rocket at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.

The 747 will return to the spaceport, while the rocket will ignite and take multiple small satellites into orbit with a variety of civil and defence applications.

They will be the first satellites launched into space from Europe.

The licencing process has not been plain-sailing though. A window for the first flight opened on October 29 and the team was aiming for take-off before the middle of November, but failed to secure the licence in time.

Start Me Up

The mission is named Start Me Up in tribute to rock band The Rolling Stones.

“This is another major milestone in enabling the very first orbital space launch from UK shores, and these licences will assist Virgin Orbit with their final preparations for launch,” said CAA director for space regulation Tim Johnson.

“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 to assess their applications and issue licences within our expected timelines.”

The CAA said it awarded the licences within 15 months of receiving Virgin Orbit's plans. Spaceport Cornwall is one of seven spaceports being developed across Britain.

“Receiving Virgin Orbit's range and launch licences takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch take-off from UK soil,” said Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart.

“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.”

UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Today we are one step closer to opening the UK's galactic gateway, with Virgin Orbit receiving a historic first licence to allow the UK's first ever space flight launch.

“The planned launch reinforces our position as a leading space nation as we look to the future of space flight, which can spur growth and innovation across the sector, as well as creating thousands of jobs and apprenticeships.”

The government hopes commercial space missions will be worth £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the next decade.

Updated: June 21, 2023, 8:35 AM