Final preparations were being made on Monday for the first launch of orbital satellites into space from western Europe, when Virgin Orbit’s mission will transform the English surfing hot spot of Newquay into the country’s first spaceport.
A modified Boeing 747 with a rocket under its wing will take off from Newquay airport on Monday evening, watched by crowds across the runway, before soaring out over the Atlantic. After an hour it will release a rocket at about 10,700 metres.
The flight will catapult the small seaside resort of Newquay, in Cornwall in southwest England, population 20,000 and best known to surfers for its reliable waves rolling off the Atlantic, into the limelight as western Europe’s go-to destination for small satellites.
Virgin Orbit, part-owned by billionaire Richard Branson, said that the mission would launch nine satellites from its LauncherOne rocket, in what will be the first time the company has done so outside of its United States base.
Europe gets critical option for launching satellites
The new spaceport in Newquay gives Europe options for launching smaller satellites at a critical time, after the Ukraine war cut access to its use of Russian Soyuz vehicles. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ariane 6 rocket, designed to carry large satellites, has also had delays.
The Ukraine war has highlighted the importance for tactical military purposes of smaller satellites, like those being launched from Newquay, which can get into low orbit at much shorter notice than bigger ones.
The plane is expected to take off at some point between 9:40 p.m. GMT (4:40 p.m. ET) and 11 p.m. GMT (6 p.m. ET), but it is dependent on the weather and “health of the system.” Virgin Orbit has said there are back-up dates available for later in January.
“Assuming that everything continues to look good we’re currently tracking well for launch,” a Virgin Orbit spokeswoman said on Sunday.
Space enthusiasts with tickets for the event will watch from a viewing area across the runway before attention shifts to a livestream from a big screen.
Growing market for small satellites
Virgin Orbit’s focus on small satellites is at the other end of the scale from the large satellites served by companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but the market is growing.
They are used for climate change, observation, urban development and security purposes, and Britain hopes the new spaceport will boost its space economy.
The country has a large space industry employing 47,000 people, who build more satellites than anywhere outside the United States, but those have had to travel to spaceports in the United States, French Guiana or Kazakhstan before they can make it into orbit.
Getting the mission off the ground has taken time. It was delayed from late last year due to the myriad regulatory clearances needed for the inaugural flight.