July 16, 2018updated 17 Jul 2018 9:11am

Britain set to launch first satellite in 50 years through Virgin Orbit

By Ellen Daniel

The first British satellite launch in 50 years is set to take place from Cornwall within the next three years.

Virgin Orbit, a company within the Virgin Group that provides launch services for small satellites, has selected a site in Cornwall for the launch of LauncherOne, a two-stage orbital launch vehicle under development.

The company is partnering with Cornwall Council to provide launches from a spaceport at Cornwall Airport Newquay by 2021. A modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft called “Cosmic Girl” will carry a LauncherOne rocket into space before releasing it at around 35,000 feet for onward flight. The rocket will then carry a satellite into Earth orbit.

The last British rocket that sent a satellite into space, which was called Black Arrow, was launched from Australia in 1971.

Managing Director of Virgin Group and Chairman of Virgin Orbit’s Board of Directors Patrick McCall believes that the spaceport will support the company’s horizontal air-launch platform:

“Cornwall can deliver new launch capabilities for the UK quickly and efficiently by upgrading Cornwall Airport Newquay to support our horizontal air-launch platform. The Cornwall partnership allows us to grasp important market share, gain instant global launch market credibility and, with the technology already being tested in the US, further lower our risk.”

The project will contribute to Cornwall’s aim of creating a £1bn space economy as part of the UK Industrial Strategy. Spaceport Cornwall could eventually create 480 jobs and contribute £25m a year to the local economy. According to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership’s Space Action Plan, the wider space sector could create thousands more jobs in Cornwall and could be worth £1bn a year by 2030.

Rise of the UK space industry

Cornwall Airport was first unveiled as one of the UK’s potential spaceport locations in July 2014 because of its long runway, uncongested airspace and direct access over the Atlantic Ocean. Cornwall is already home to Goonhilly Earth Station, the world’s largest satellite earth receiving station.

The UK space industry is growing rapidly. It has been growing at 8% a year over the last decade, four times as fast as the rest of the UK economy.

The country is a world-leader in the production of small satellites. However, it does not currently have the means of launching them into space, so they must be launched elsewhere. The UK Government has set a target of achieving commercial spaceflight from British soil from the end of the decade, and increasing the UK’s share of the global space economy from 6.5% now to 10% by 2030.

UK Science Minister Sam Gyimah said:

“The announcement of a strategic partnership between Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Spaceport is great news for the region and the UK’s ambitions for regular, reliable and responsible access to space. This partnership could see Virgin Orbit’s innovative horizontal launch technology helping the UK’s small satellite industry access space from the convenience of a Spaceport in Cornwall. We will work with both partners to support their ambitions, as we take the next steps in our national spaceflight programme as part of the government’s modern Industrial strategy.”