UK’s first space launch is pushed back to 2023 after licence setback

Virgin Orbit attach the LauncherOne rocket to the Cosmic Girl jet

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The UK’s first-ever rocket launch from British soil has been delayed until after Christmas due to technical and regulatory challenges causing setbacks to the historic space event. Virgin Orbit, which will blast its LauncherOne rocket into orbit from Spaceport Cornwall, was set to take place next week. It was set to mark a key moment for the UK’s burgeoning space sector. But it looks like this plan has hit the ice for now – with high hopes of it finally going ahead in the weeks to come. Sir Richard Branson’s firm says it is facing a number of issues preventing the launch from taking place on time. 

 

Virgin Orbit said in a statement: “At this time, all our customer spacecraft have been encapsulated into our payload assembly and into our LauncherOne rocket, which is now mated to our carrier aircraft on the Echo Apron at Spaceport Cornwall. Through hard work and close coordination with all our launch partners, a commercial airport has been transformed into western Europe’s first orbital spaceport.

“With licenses still outstanding for the launch itself and for the satellites within the payload, additional technical work needed to establish system health and readiness, and a very limited available launch window of only two days, we have determined that it is prudent to retarget launch for the coming weeks to allow ourselves and our stakeholders time to pave the way for full mission success.

“All stakeholders continue to drive in a coordinated effort towards a historic milestone, which will soon establish the UK as the first nation with the capability to launch to orbit from western Europe.”

 

But the announcement comes after months of previous delays. Initially, it was hoped that the launch would take place over the summer 2022 to honour Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, previously told Express.co.uk: “Her Majesty the Queen has witnessed the birth and growth of the UK space sector during her 70-year reign, so it’s wonderful that the Platinum Jubilee will be celebrated in the same year as the first satellite launch from British soil.

“The Queen has regularly demonstrated an interest in space, from meeting with Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the Moon, in 1969, to celebrating British Science Week last year.”

But the UK’s official space regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority has stressed that the regulation process is not a “barrier” to the UK space sector’s progress. 

Tim Johnson, Director for Space Regulation, said “The UK space regulation process is not a barrier to a UK space launch. Virgin Orbit has said in its statement this morning that there are some technical issues that will need to be resolved before launch. These in no way relate to the timing of when a licence will be issued by the Civil Aviation Authority.

“Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity. Spaceport Cornwall’s licence already permits Virgin Orbit to undertake its testing programme prior to launch. Our dedicated team has been working closely with all partners to assess applications and issue the remaining licences within the timelines we set at the outset.

“We continue to work with Virgin Orbit, and other stakeholders, to play our part in delivering a safe UK launch.”

When the launch finally does go ahead from Spaceport Cornwall’s site at Newquay Airport on Britain’s southwest coast, it will see seven small satellites sent into orbit. The Launcher One rocket will be carried up to 35,000 feet under the wing of Cosmic Girl – a modified Boeing 747-400 airliner – before being jettisoned to leave Earth’s atmosphere under its own power.

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The delay to the landmark event has not dampened spirits, despite the Start Me Up mission being so close to getting off the ground. It had been given December 14, 15 and 16 as potential launch dates, but will not meet any of those at this late stage.

Head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Thorpe, said: “Nobody ever said Space was easy! We stand with our partners in UK Launch and with our friends at Virgin Orbit as we work with passion and commitment towards our first launch. 

“We are optimistic for the next steps and look forward to sharing updates as we get closer to this iconic UK moment from the heart of Cornwall.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart has previously said that the launch will bring a huge boost to the whole of the UK.

He said: “What an incredible honour it is for us to be part of something as monumental as bringing Britain into the business of launch. Working with our partners across the UK government, we’re starting up a new capability that will serve the people, the economy, and the security of the UK.”

This is a breaking story. More to follow.

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