'Immense excitement' as Britain’s first space launch set for lift-off

Virgin Orbit ready to head for space from Spaceport Cornwall in south-west England

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Excitement is high among members of a team co-ordinating Britain’s first space launch, which is set for lift-off on Monday.

Final arrangements are being made to send several satellites into space on Monday night from Cornwall Airport near Newquay in south-west England as part of the Start Me Up mission.

The mission involves a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, called Cosmic Girl, which will take off horizontally from the new launch site while carrying a rocket packed with eight shoebox-sized satellites.

The window for the mission will be open from about 9.40pm until 11pm, with the rocket drop following around an hour later, 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “I feel confident and I feel focused and ready to handle whatever comes our way. And I just feel so excited.

“I cannot wait for the UK to join that exclusive launch club because it’s going to feel good.”

Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said there was “immense excitement” among those involved.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today show on Monday, Ms Thorpe said the rocket will be carrying nine satellites.

"They are doing a variety of different amazing things for the people and our planet," she said.

"From earth observation, to monitoring illegal fishing to building satellites and products and manufacturing them in space. So we have a lot of different things, a lot of different companies and even a few different nations that will be launching. So it is a commercial entity. They are paying commercial rates to get to space."

The satellites will perform a variety of tasks for customers including Oman and the US and UK militaries.

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

Ms Thorpe said that was important, because the UK will no longer have to rely on other countries.

"Joining that really exclusive club of launch nations is so important because it gives us our own access to space," she told Radio 4.

"That sovereign access to space that we have never had before in the UK. And from a commercial perspective in a marketplace that’s really exciting.

"But also geopolitically that’s really important if we have seen more recently with what happened in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and not being able to launch with Soyuz, we now have the opportunity to launch our own satellites."

A window for the flight first opened on October 29 and the team was aiming for lift-off before the middle of November, but failed to secure a licence in time. It was finally secured in late December.

A sign at Cornwall Airport before the launch. Getty

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, said the schedule would be adjusted if necessary. There are several opportunities over the coming weeks.

“We are always geared towards and focused on the start of the window, which is why we are here today,” he said.

“But we will be looking very carefully at the readiness of the system as we process forward. Right now everything is green.”

Cosmic Girl sits on the apron runway surrounded by technical service equipment at Cornwall Airport on January 8. Getty

The rocket was armed on Saturday, the fuel will be loaded later on Sunday, he said.

Mr Hart said the mission was in “full motion” as it aimed for Monday’s launch.

“That said, if we see anything interesting that we want to stop and pause and look at, relative to the system health, if winds or precipitation, or lightning or something like that is in the area we will look very closely,” he said.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air for the first time during a July 2019 drop test. Photo: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson.

He said the team would know very quickly whether the mission was successful.

“The mission will take a little bit over an hour after we leave the airport, to get into position for releasing the rocket,” he said.

“And after that it’s on the order of 50 to 60 minutes before we have released the satellites and got the data back on the orbital performance. So it will be quick.”

Updated: January 09, 2023, 10:46 AM