Virgin Orbit is set to make the first ever space flight from UK soil, after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved a "historic" first launch license from Spaceport Cornwell. With that in hand, the company plans to launch nine satellites from a LauncherOne rocket aboard its "Cosmic Girl" Boeing 747 aircraft in January next year.
Virgin Orbit first announced plans to launch from a site at Cornwall Airport Newquay four years ago, so the launch has been many years in the making. The first flight was originally scheduled in for mid-December, but was postponed due to technical issues and the lack of a license.
Despite those concerns, the CAA said the license was issued within 15 months, "putting the UK framework on a competitive footing with international space regulators." The regulator added it took "all reasonable steps" to mitigate safety risks. Spaceport Cornwall, meanwhile, received its launch certification last month.
In addition to the launch license, Virgin Orbit received a range control license that allows it to issue warning notices and monitor the progress of missions. "Receiving range and launch licenses takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch take-off from UK soil," said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. "We are progressing towards the first launch from Cornwall – keeping a strong focus on a safe and successful mission for all."
Virgin Orbit flies LauncherOne under the wing of a 747 to reduce the rocket size and fuel needed while eliminating the need for a vertical launch pad. For its maiden "Start Me up" mission, Cosmic Girl will take off from the spaceport and fly to a height of 35,000 feet, then release the LauncherOne rocket that will take the satellites into orbit. Permits for the nine satellites have yet to be issued, but are reportedly "imminent."