The UK’s first orbiting satellite is due to launch from Space Cornwall in Newquay tonight. If successful, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket will carry a nine-satellite payload from a modified Boeing 747 at 35,000 feet off the south coast of Ireland, from where it will continue into low Earth orbit to drop the cargo.
The UK has the world’s second-largest satellite manufacturing industry after the US, but relies on public and private launches from other countries, such as those by NASA or SpaceX, to get its products into orbit.Many hope tonight’s success will mark the the beginning of an era Among them, the United Kingdom can launch its own satellites locally, and it can also launch satellites from other countries.
“We have a lot of international agreements and work with countries like Ireland, Spain and Portugal, which are all involved in airspace management, and it’s been a long road for us,” said Matt Archer, Director of the UK Spaceflight Program at the UK Space Agency (UKSA). “There’s a lot of work behind the scenes.”
With a rocket under its wing, the plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, weathered wind and rain on the runway for its final moments in the countdown to the Newquay launch pre-flight inspection. Last week, the device went through a “wet rehearsal,” in which the entire launch process takes place, except for the ignition itself.
Even if the weather deteriorates, the team hopes, the plane should be able to take off. “The Boeing 747 is a proven aircraft. It can take off in very challenging conditions and it can land in very challenging conditions,” said Ian Annett, Deputy Chief Executive, UKSA Project Delivery. “Of course having a rocket under its left wing means you have to be aware of that, but one of the advantages is that you can fly through the weather in order to launch [the rocket]”
If the plane gets the green light to launch, it will take off between 9:40pm and 11pm GMT (4:40pm and 6pm EST) and head towards the Irish Sea, about one In hours it will drop its rocket there.
LauncherOne, a rocket that has been successfully launched four times before by Virgin Orbit from its facility in California’s Mojave Desert, will begin its first-stage burn, run for about 20 minutes and accelerate to about 12,900 km/h to Start its solo journey.
The rocket will then drop its first stage and use the second stage to continue, accelerating to 28,000 km/h in six minutes as it passes over Antarctica. An hour after deployment, it will eventually reach an orbital altitude of about 500 kilometers over Australia, where it will release its payload of nine satellites.
A previous rocket launch in California gave the Virgin Orbit team confidence that tonight’s attempt would go smoothly, with the system operating essentially the same, Dan HartCEO, Virgin Orbit, Tell new scientist at a pre-launch press conference. The only difference in Cornwall rather than America, he says, is “a pie versus a hamburger”.
Satellites on LauncherOne include a test satellite from Welsh company Space Forge – which it hopes to use to manufacture materials in orbit – a small military communications satellite for the UK Ministry of Defense, a pair of ionospheric monitors in a joint US-UK military cooperation, a maritime sensing satellite From Scottish company AAC Clyde Space, the European Space Agency’s GPS tracker and imaging satellite, launched jointly by Oman and Poland.
Newquay may seem an unlikely location for a satellite launch, but its combination of long runways formerly used by the RAF, easy access to the sea and a relatively small civilian population made it the UK government’s first choice when it chose it in 2018. Britain’s first spaceport.
There’s excitement in the town too, both from the launch itself, which hundreds of locals will be attending tonight, from the town’s shuttle bus delivery, and what the spaceport might bring to the region – which loses EU funding to Brexit Post Europe – in terms of jobs and opportunities, such as the integration facility that opened last year, where the satellites to be launched are installed inside the rocket body.
While tonight’s scheduled launch could be the only launch from Cornwall this year, the UK government hopes to eventually have a network of spaceports, including the Vertical Launch Facility at Sack Saward in the Shetland Islands, where it is planned to take place later Rocket launches this year. Over 10 years, UKSA hopes to conduct around 15 launches a year, which would put it in competition with countries with more established space launch industries, Archer said.
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